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The Big Meet

It was one of those dry autumn L.A. days, the kind that makes your eyes water and your skin itch. I was driving along North Rexford through Beverly Hills, admiring the fall foliage, what there is of it. I pulled into a parking structure next to the Beverly Hills Public Library, an ocher postmodern pastiche that featured as many quotations as the books inside. I was there to listen to a panel of distinguished writers discuss the great hard-boiled detective novelist and bard of L.A., Raymond Chandler, and I didn’t care who knew it.

The auditorium was packed. No leggy blondes in the crowd, just a collection of the usual Beverly Hills matrons, raffish bookworms, retirees with time on their hands, assorted semi-bums attracted to the free food and, of course, the panelists, who were seated in a row beneath klieg lights guaranteed to make a man sweat. What’s a public event without cameras?

The moderator was the bearded, bespectacled Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan. Seated to his right were authors Robert Ward (creator of “Miami Vice”), Michael Connelly (“The Black Echo”), William F. Nolan (“Logan’s Run”), Robert Crais (“The Monkey’s Raincoat”) and Dick Lochte (“Blue Bayou”). They were celebrating not only Chandler but his induction into the Library of America’s pantheon of great American writers. He is now up there with Twain and Melville and Lincoln, and the subtext of this discussion was whether he belonged in that company. Turan had devised a series of questions designed to tease out an answer.

What about Chandler’s use of language? “A literary E-ticket ride,” said Crais, who, of all the panelists, looked the most like a cop. “I desperately wanted to imitate him, and I have.”

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His evocation of L.A.? “He created it by destroying it,” said Connelly, a graduate student-type who nonetheless brought a reader’s enthusiasm to the subject, rather than an expert’s.

His best work? “ ‘Goldfish,’ ‘The Long Goodbye,’ ‘The Little Sister,’ ” said Lochte, with looks to be a romance novelist’s idea of a novelist. “He was the Noel Coward of mystery writers.”

His ramshackle plots? “Yeah, we should stop reading it,” said Ward sarcastically, every bit the Hollywood producer in a blue shirt and tan leather vest. “If it’s Hemingway, it’s OK. If it’s a mystery novel, it’s not.”

His alcoholism? “All great writers were drunks,” said Nolan, balding, ruddy-faced, old-school, opinionated, entertaining. “The whole history of American letters is one of extreme drunkenness.”

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Turan, the voice of moderation, turned to the audience after this statement and said wryly: “Don’t try this at home.”

Well, I did anyway. The conclusion: There’s only one Raymond Chandler.


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