Did This Real-Life Licensed Private Detective Inspire Two Famous Fictional Investigators?


Where to hire a private investigator

Private detectives have been a common fixture in American popular culture for decades. While modern audiences are likely familiar with private investigator-themed television shows like “Monk” and “Veronica Mars”, the topic dates back to 1841, when Edgar Allen Poe published his short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. This work was quickly followed by stories, novels and more by writers ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But where did these authors get the inspiration for their stories about private investigators for hire?

An article published in the Los Angeles Times suggests that some may have had help from within the industry: according to journalist Daniel Miller, a several people believe that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler may have been assisted by one of the first African American men to work as a licensed private detective in Los Angeles. The man, Sam Marlowe, was a Jamaican immigrant who allegedly provided security for illegal speakeasies and helped prevent blackmail attempts against movie icons like Marlene Dietrich. But it was reportedly Marlowe’s decision to write letters to Hammett and Chandler, criticizing their depiction of his profession, that would result in his clearest legacy: the hero of Hammett’s famous novel “The Maltese Falcon” is named Sam Spade, while the protagonist of several of Chandler’s stories, including “The Big Sleep” and “The Long Goodbye”, is named Philip Marlowe.

Naturally, a number of scholars focusing on the two famous authors have pointed out that there are several theories which might explain the characters’ names. And to make matters worse, all of the documents that connected Sam Marlowe to the authors, including letters to and from both men, have reportedly been lost: Miller’s article follows the efforts of screenwriter Louise Ransil and a few of Marlowe’s relatives as they try to track down the private detective’s belongings after the sale of his son’s house in the early 2000s. So far, the search has been unsuccessful, although it appears that the searchers have not given up hope. Ransil has even written a movie about Marlowe based on her initial notes, taken before the house sale, that she has pitched to several studios.

Today, private detective firms still offer a number of private investigation services to their clients, ranging from background checks and surveillance to searches for missing people. However, the industry has changed somewhat since Sam Marlowe started his career in the early 1900s: today, instead of protecting speakeasies, many licensed private investigators work for financial institutions, government bodies, or attorneys in civil cases. And yet, the legacy of men like Marlowe continues on, stirring interest in the man behind the myth. Could Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe really have been inspired by this mysterious African American detective? Unless his documents are recovered, we may never know.
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