Down These Mean Streets: Raymond Chandler’s L.A.

Chandler_Square_Los_Angeles

by Chris Dickerson

 

Certain cities belong to a few writers. They may not own the towns exclusively, but they’ve put their stamp on them so indelibly in their books and stories that anybody who writes about the places after them can’t help but live in their shadow. Dashiell Hammett long ago claimed San Francisco. Those chilly, fog-wreathed sidewalks where Sam Spade pursues the elusive Maltese Falcon reek of Prohibition Era corruption and Barbary Coast intrigue. You can still hear the echo of the pistol shot in the back alley where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was gunned down.

New York belongs to Pete Hamill. Not only in his three Sam Briscoe private eye novels, but in anything Hamill writes; be it journalism or fiction, the soggy heat of a summer’s day lingers over Times Square and Forty-Second Street, clogs the subways, and mingles with the fumes of trucks and taxis while the Christmas snows turn the metropolis into a hushed, glimmering wonderland.

Robert B. Parker staked out Boston for private detective Spenser, just as surely as London – where it’s always 1895 – belongs to the bustling Victorian jungle of Sherlock Holmes, and the narrow, winding streets of Paris, with its cozy cafes and the sluggish Seine, are home to Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Many writers have tackled the sprawling crazy-quilt that is Los Angeles; John Fante springs to mind, Michael Connelly, and certainly Charles Bukowski, but nobody captured the town better, in seven novels and numerous short stories written between 1933 and 1958, than Raymond Chandler. L.A., pure and simple, is “Chandlertown.” When Chandler writes about Los Angeles, you can smell the orange trees, the jasmine, and the eucalyptus on the night wind, feel the breeze sliding across the mountainous landscape from the nearby Pacific Ocean, and see the moon shining down like a hallowed street lamp above the ghostly black palm trees.

What’s most remarkable is, in the decades since Chandler was sending his private investigator Philip Marlowe, out on his adventures from an office on Hollywood Boulevard, the place hasn’t changed all that much – not the architecture, the people, or the sins committed in the City of Angels.

Chandler was born in 1888 in Chicago, but after his parents split up when he was a boy of seven, his mother, who was Anglo-Irish, took him back to her home in England.  He was educated there, returning to America in 1907. Then Chandler drifted. He worked a variety of menial jobs, signed on with a Canadian unit in World War I (when his outfit was shelled by the Germans, he was the only survivor), eventually winding up as the bookkeeper for an oil company in Southern California.

The Depression put an end to that. Chandler’s habitual boozing and chasing secretaries might have had something to do with it too, but either way in 1932 he was out of a job, past forty, with a wife eighteen years his senior, and a bleak future.

He decided to become a writer. He’d played around with writing as a young man, scribbling poetry and minor literary reviews. Now – with few other prospects – he went at it with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a dogged (and probably desperate) detective. He read pulp magazines. There were a few hundred of them on the newsstands every week, offering up adventure tales, sci-fi, westerns, horror, sex, and detective stories;  plenty of detective stories.

Chandler soon saw that the best of the “hard-boiled” writers was Dashiell Hammett, but Hammett didn’t invent the American private eye any more than Chandler did. That distinction probably belongs to a genial hack named Carroll John Daly, whose private detective, Race Williams, burst on the pages of Black Mask magazine in 1920 with both .45 pistols blazing, while a breathless flapper cowered behind him. Daly and the rest of his ilk, pounding out stories for the various magazines, showed Chandler the basic formula for keeping a story fast-paced, action-packed. “When in doubt,” Chandler noted, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

Hammett, though, was doing more than just that. Chandler, too saw the potential for character development, crackling dialogue, social commentary, and a centeredness of time and place in the gaudy, rip-roaring world of the pulps.

Chandler’s first sale to Black Mask was 1933’s “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”; he was paid a whopping $180, a penny a word. His detective isn’t called Marlowe, but otherwise, everything else – especially the Los Angeles setting – is in place. Chandler would labor in the pulp salt mines for the next few years, honing his craft, painstakingly writing and rewriting his stories, chipping out a living (he said that at one point, he had nothing to eat for five straight days but soup). By 1939 he was ready for the big jump, and published his first novel: The Big Sleep. Its hero is a tall, good looking, well-dressed man, with a sense of integrity, a sharp eye, and a guarded nature, private eye Philip Marlowe. The landscape he moves across is the city of L.A.

“Down these mean streets a man must go,” Chandler wrote in his classic essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” “A man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero; he is everything… The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth.”

Marlowe established his office on Hollywood Boulevard near Ivar Avenue, on the sixth floor of the Cahuenga Building. But Chandler was sometimes cagey with his locations (like when he changed the name of Santa Monica, where a great deal of action takes place in his books, to “Bay City”). The Cahuenga Building is actually a block west from Hollywood and Ivar, on the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga. Built in 1921, it still stands today, opposite a sign on the corner denoting Raymond Chandler Square, and another sign nearby with a photo of Bogart and Bacall from the film version of The Big Sleep, indicating the location as a “Historic Hollywood Site.”

Marlowe kept the same office for years, a dusty little two-room suite down at the end of a corridor, with a pebbled glass door on which was stencilled, Philip Marlowe – Investigations. From here, he could look out over the city and gauge its mood:

 

– There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.

(Red Wind 1938)

 

But if Marlowe was reluctant to change offices, he changed his place of residence frequently. The Big Sleep finds him living in a small apartment with a Murphy bed coming down out of the wall. He lives in the Hobart Arms, “a huge white stucco affair.” He lives in an apartment in the “Berglund Arms”; and at one point, he has a place on Vine, a few blocks from his office. By the time of The Long Goodbye, he’s taken a rented house up a long flight of redwood stairs on Yucca Avenue. Marlowe’s frequent moves may reflect Chandler’s own. He seemed to be a restless man, and he and his wife moved often, finally settling in La Jolla, many miles down the coast from L.A.

Marlowe stayed in Los Angeles, and Chandler sent him roaming widely. His investigations take him from the quiet suburbs of Pasadena to the opulent estates of Beverly Hills (“the best policed four square miles in California”) and Brentwood; from the art deco high-rises of downtown L.A. to the shadowy streets of Bunker Hill; from the gated mansions along Los Feliz Boulevard. out to the ocean and “Bay City.”

What’s perhaps most interesting is the places Marlowe doesn’t go. Chandler never sends him into the picturesque and bustling streets of Chinatown, or over into the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park, or into the African-American section of Watts, though the opening chapter of Farewell, My Lovely, does find Marlowe in an African-American bar downtown, dragged there by the hulking Moose Malloy, in an area that “wasn’t all Negro yet.” Those locations would seem the ideal geography for an L.A.-based private eye, but Marlowe never goes near them.

It could be because Chandler wasn’t a journalist; he wasn’t interested in exploring areas he didn’t know well. Hollywood and its environs, Chandler knew. But even so, another aspect not explored in detail in the books is the movie industry. Chandler makes some swipes at it in The Little Sister – the primary female character is aspiring movie star Mavis Weld – but he never gives “the industry” the beating that, say, Nathaniel West does in Day Of The Locust. He certainly could have.

No matter. What Chandler gets, he gets right. Marlowe’s Los Angeles is a city of corrupt cops and politicians (like Police Chief “Two Gun” Bill Davis and Mayor Frank Shaw and his brother Joe “The Enforcer” – those aren’t Chandler characters, they were real enough in the 1930s), and mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen, running the gambling, drugs, and prostitution rackets, and the small-time grifters, the shop girls, and pretty boys who come from all over the country to be famous, to be in the movies, to capture the American Dream.

Little has changed. Davis and Shaw are gone – the city even has a Latino mayor finally – but the cocaine is still in abundance in the Sunset Strip clubs, and the prostitutes stroll nightly on Santa Monica Boulevard. The LAPD may not be as corrupt, but a recent federal bust of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department found wide-spread abuse of prisoners and rampant drug-dealing in Men’s Central Jail downtown – all of it being done by the sheriffs.

Bugsy Siegel – who said about gangland murders, “We only kill each other” – and Mickey Cohen are history, but now Russian gangs battle it out, and kill each other regularly over in East Hollywood, while the Bloods and Crips have been fighting their turf wars in South L.A. for decades.

And every day the prettiest girls from Pittsburgh, or Portland, or Peoria, get off the bus, or the plane, or the train to become movie stars, or TV stars, while the boys coax their battered over-packed cars up the ramps from the Hollywood Freeway, coming from Denver or Dallas or Duluth, to make it as rock stars, or stand-up comics, or on the next big reality show. They just want to become rich and famous. And the grifters and hustlers and con artists are waiting for them.

 

When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the ground swell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Blvd., and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy car tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

(The Long Goodbye 1954)

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Thorpe, Edward, Chandlertown: The Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, hard cover, 1983)

Silver, Alain, and Ward, Elizabeth, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (New York: The Overlook Press, 1987)

Gross, Miriam, ed. The World of Raymond Chandler (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977)

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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1 Comment

  1. Hello Chris, long time no speak! Good article, but I expect nothing less from you! Cheers, Briant from the Bogie Board

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