The Mystery Man : Raymond Chandler captured the heartbeat of L.A. A new collection shows his influence still resonates in our times.
If, as is often said, every city has at least one writer it can claim for a muse, Raymond Chandler must be Los Angeles’. To be sure, there are other candidates: John Fante and Nathanael West come immediately to mind, while from a later generation, Joan Didion more than makes the grade. Yet Fante’s work was too personal to be truly universal, and West’s oeuvre was just too small. Didion, for her part, has become an author of global vision, which may explain why she abandoned Southern California for New York.
That leaves Chandler as the one L.A. writer whose books have as a consistent center the idea of the city as a living, breathing character--capturing the sights, the smells, the bleak glare of the sunlight, the deceptive smoothness of the surface beneath which nothing is as it seems.
Even the fact that Chandler wrote mysteries, not literary fiction, is oddly fitting, for Los Angeles has always existed not so much in conjunction with East Coast or European intellectual traditions as in reaction to them, a place where high and low culture constantly merge. Maybe it’s the influence of the movies, or, in the words of novelist John Gregory Dunne, the fact that “Los Angeles is three thousand miles away.”
But as biographer Frank MacShane explains in “The Life of Raymond Chandler,” “There is something appropriate in Chandler’s choosing the detective story as his vehicle for presenting Los Angeles. . . . The detective story, so peculiar to the modern city, can involve an extraordinary range of humanity, from the very rich to the very poor, and can encompass a great many different places. Most of Chandler’s contemporaries who wrote ‘straight’ fiction--Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner, for example--confined themselves to a special setting and a limited cast of characters. The detective story, however, allowed Chandler to create the whole of Los Angeles in much the same way that such 19th-Century novelists as Dickens and Balzac created London and Paris for future generations.”
Chandler, of course, has never been a Los Angeles secret; his books have sold steadily from the moment they began to appear more than 50 years ago, and his distinctive, clipped style and characters have become so persuasive as to be cultural cliches. Half a century later, Philip Marlowe remains the quintessential urban private eye, a solitary hero who, in “Farewell, My Lovely,” sums up his point of view: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a house in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.”
It’s a desolate perspective, almost prototypically existential, that at the same time implies a certain moral vision, a sense of seeing the world for the darkness it holds and still trying to do what’s right. It’s because of this, I believe, that Chandler’s influence has continued to resonate so strongly in our own times, since when you get right down to it, Marlowe knows the score.
Thinking about that, I can’t help wondering what Chandler’s detective would make of the recent release by the Library of America of “Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels” and “Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings,” a two-volume, 2,200-page set collecting all seven Marlowe novels and 13 short stories, along with some miscellaneous odds and ends. Such a publication represents a validation. But it’s also a bit incongruous, as if we’re getting away with something when what we find staring back at us from all that onionskin paper--delicate like a Bible--is Philip Marlowe and his black-and-white world.
What’s most striking about the Library of America’s interest in Chandler is the fact that he’s not only the first “genre” writer they’ve collected, but the first Los Angeles writer as well. Nowhere in the series’ 50-odd volumes will you find, say, Fante or West, nor even F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, toward the end of his life, turned his eye upon Hollywood. According to publisher Max Rudin, that doesn’t mean much. “There’s a common misperception that order says something about literary significance,” he says. “But our decisions have to balance our mission--to produce a series that will ultimately include all significant American writers--with staying alive.”
Nonetheless, there’s an irony at work since the Library of America was originally the dream of critic Edmund Wilson, whose 1945 New Yorker essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” dismissed virtually the entire mystery genre except for Chandler, damning him instead with faint praise. Wilson died before his idea for the library became a reality, but you have to wonder what he might think about Chandler’s inclusion and what it says about what Rudin calls the “false dichotomy” between literary and popular culture, which seems to grow smaller every day.
In any event, one thing’s for certain: Chandler himself would have loved it. American-born but educated in England, he was a mild-mannered man who wore tweed jackets and smoked a pipe, and lived in a succession of nondescript homes with his invalid wife, Cissy. Throughout his life, he fancied himself an intellectual and brought a poet’s intensity to his work.
“What people may not know about Raymond Chandler,” Rudin suggests, “is what a self-conscious artist he was.” The work in the Library of America set bears this out. There is the fiction, much of it polished and taut, although executive editor Geoffrey O’Brien admits that “the early novels [‘The Big Sleep,’ ‘Farewell, My Lovely’ and ‘The High Window’] are stronger.”
But more telling are the five essays and the 30-page selection of letters, which crystallize Chandler’s aesthetics in an unexpected way. “The Simple Art of Murder,” for instance, originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in December, 1944, is so concise and well-reasoned a representation of the author’s ideas that I have dogeared nearly every page. When, toward the beginning of the piece, Chandler writes, “There are not vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that,” it is as clear a declaration of war against “the trained seals of the critical fraternity” as you’re likely to find. “It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with,” Chandler claims. “Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.”
This is an absolutely essential point, one that bears repeating. For the distinction between genre fiction and serious literature is spurious, whether your frame of reference is Hollywood or Manhattan’s publishing world. A description like “The Little Sister’s” reference to California as “the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing” is simply good writing; there’s no need to place an asterisk next to it because it appeared in a detective novel.
Sure, Chandler’s plotting can be spotty--one of my favorite stories about him involved a telegram Howard Hawks sent during production of “The Big Sleep,” asking who had killed the chauffeur; Chandler, it is said, responded, “I don’t know.”
But as O’Brien explains, “For Chandler, plot was something to string together a series of powerfully imagined scenes. His real appeal is his formalism: His work is as completely stylized as a Kabuki play, an absolutely formal dance that pretends to be realism. Style is what it was all about.” And novelist Carolyn See, who teaches Chandler at UCLA, says, “His strength as a writer was his evocation of scenes. He takes us into a different world, a world that’s like ours, but isn’t. It’s a violent world, a random world, in which it doesn’t matter who did it, just how you behave.”
Chandler himself made no bones about his goals as a writer: “It doesn’t matter a damn what a novel is about,” he wrote in a 1945 letter to the Atlantic’s Charles Morton. “The only writers left who have anything to say are those who write about practically nothing and monkey around with odd ways of doing it.”
In a classically perverse twist, however, Chandler spent years working in Hollywood. An adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” which Chandler co-wrote with director Billy Wilder, is included in the Library of America collection, and it makes for a vivid lesson in the art of collaborating for the screen. Sheldon MacArthur, manager of West Hollywood’s Mysterious Bookstore, who has read Chandler’s first draft, says, “It has great mood, great description, but was unfilmable; it made no sense.” The finished script, on the other hand, “is superb, seminal. It retains all of Chandler’s dialogue, but Wilder made the plot work.”
In MacArthur’s view, Chandler’s Hollywood experience was ultimately destructive. “He began to be unsure of himself as a writer, and that, in turn, made him drink,” he says. “In addition, he didn’t like many of the films made from his own books.”
That represents another contradiction, for it is the screen versions of Chandler’s novels that brought his characters and situations so forcefully to the forefront of the popular imagination and guaranteed their survival as American archetypes. To this day, more people are probably familiar with Philip Marlowe from Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal in “The Big Sleep” than from anything Chandler ever wrote.
“I think a lot more people have seen the Chandler movies than read the books,” says Rob Cohen, who publishes the bimonthly literary journal Caffeine, “and that’s where the influence begins. It was so cool and yet so underground.”
Given all the cultural currency of film noir, it’s hardly astonishing to see directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Carl Franklin make movies that hark back to the golden age of Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Nor is it unexpected that such mystery writers as Walter Mosley and Robert B. Parker have been profoundly moved by what Chandler has done.
Even the new TV series “Murder One” borrows from Chandler in the seamless way it commingles the highest and lowest levels of society, bringing together movie stars and pornographers, philanthropists and teen-age prostitutes. “He’s the perfect novelist for our times,” See explains, “because he tells us what we already know--that the system and criminals are equally corrupt. He sets up a pastoral world that’s totally infested with evil. The whole place bespeaks alienation, and no one is better than anyone else.”
If there were any doubt as to the continued relevance of this perspective in portraying the social landscape of Los Angeles, all we need to do is look to the recent events at the courthouse: a Chandleresque bit of vaudeville if ever there was one, in which we have been offered yet another glimpse at the ways in which there is no such thing as the moral upper hand.
Chandler’s prescience may be why, of all the detective novelists, he has exerted the most crossover effect on so-called serious authors. From Charles Bukowski, whose final novel “Pulp” was a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the hard-boiled genre, to Paul Auster, whose mid-1980s “New York Trilogy” recast the detective novel from a post-modern point of view, Chandler has cast a long shadow. Indeed, Chandler’s conjoining of the vernacular with literary textures suggests a direction for writers to pursue at a time when traditional methods of storytelling have begun to seem contrived, too fixed and non-fluid to encompass the jarring juxtapositions that make up real life.
Of course, the question that begs to be answered is why Chandler’s stripped-down, edgy style of writing has come so fully to define Los Angeles. Is it because such an attitude is somehow endemic to the city, or just that Chandler’s own voice is now, as MacArthur believes, “the first thing that comes to mind when you think about L.A.”? In other words, is Chandler the architect of the Southern California aesthetic or merely the writer who brought it to its highest form?
It’s an issue you can play with endlessly, one that, in all likelihood, will never be resolved. “Real life,” says writer Benjamin Weissman, “has influenced a lot of Los Angeles writers more than Chandler has,” and certainly many of Chandler’s contemporaries wrote about the city in their own world-weary terms.
Fante, for instance, begins “Ask the Dust” with a statement that could be Marlowe talking: “One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.”
And in “The Day of the Locust,” West writes with equal succinctness about the emptiness of the California dream. “Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?” he asks. “Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time.”
Perhaps the bottom line is, as See suggests, that “you can look at the West Coast as the end of the road for the American dream. We’re up against a blank wall here, and we can’t go any farther. There is no out, you’re here.” If so, then Chandler stands not as creator but pioneer, who captured the dislocation at the heart of Los Angeles in as vivid a way as anyone before or since.
Even Didion, who, according to husband John Gregory Dunne “has not read Chandler and has nothing to say about him,” operates in the Chandler mold. Her essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” opens with a description of Santa Ana winds season that seems right out of Chandler’s “Red Wind,” and in “Pacific Distances,” she captures the Zeitgeist of a city that, apparently, has not changed since Marlowe walked its streets. “When I first moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1964,” Didion writes, “I found [the] absence of narrative a deprivation. At the end of two years I realized (quite suddenly, alone one morning in the car) that I had come to find narrative sentimental.”
Narrative sentimental? That’s a hard-boiled conception if I ever heard one, and it makes me think of Chandler again. After all, he, too, thought narrative was sentimental and saw no room for its deceptions in a city as brutal, as “lost and beaten and full of emptiness,” as Los Angeles. For him, the writer was a kind of detective, and it was his job to see through the illusions and get at the truth.
As he writes in “The Little Sister,” “I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”