The big sleep took Raymond Chandler 50 years ago today

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It was 3:40 p.m., March 26, 1959, when Raymond Chandler passed away at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, Judith Freeman told the assembled audience Wednesday night. If I had been sitting closer I could say for sure that she got misty-eyed saying it.

Freeman is the author of ‘The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,’ a biography of the iconic mystery writer and his slightly odd marriage. His wife, Cissy, lied about her age but was in fact 18 years his elder, and despite an early bout of infidelity on his part, they stayed together for almost 30 years.

With Freeman on the panel were Kenneth Turan, film critic at the L.A. Times and former editor of our Books section; professor and cultural critic Leo Braudy (author of, most recently, ‘From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity’); and award-winning mystery writer Denise Hamilton (‘The Last Embrace’).

The panel was at its best when the group -- all well acquainted with Chandler’s novels, short stories and collected letters -- riffed on the man and his legacy. Like this:

Kenneth Turan: The core of Chandler’s appeal is the language ... that’s why, for me, Chandler continues to stand out. I really believe he’s the still best.


Leo Braudy responded that the short stories were ‘flat,’ but with ‘The Big Sleep,’ something changed. Chandler’s language became ‘incandescent.’

The panel talked about the corruption of Los Angeles in Chandler’s time (pervasive, high-reaching), a critical mass of writers in his moment contemplating Hollywood (Nathanael West, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and James M. Cain), the rootlessness of Chandler’s life in and around LA (he and Cissy moved about once a year), his tetchy relationship with Billy Wilder (they co-wrote the screenplay for ‘Double Indemnity’), Philip Marlowe’s vulnerability or loneliness or aloneness or romanticism and more.

Chandler remains a quintessential L.A. writer, but the claim, made early on, that he speaks to each generation went unproven last night. Despite the event being on USC’s campus, judging by the looks of the crowd, the attendees’ average age was on the mature side of 40.

Some in the audience knew as much about Chandler as those onstage and seemed to have come as a way to honor his memory. Tom Williams is working on a new Chandler biography (his blog posts about what’s been expurgated from Chandler’s published letters are very interesting). And one woman, who declined to talk to me after I told her I was with the press, had just moments before been speaking about attending Chandler’s funeral in 1959 -- it drew a smaller crowd than the 2009 panel.

-- Carolyn Kellogg