The blonde was tall and wore stiletto heals that could pin your chest to the sidewalk; you’d die, wriggling but smiling up at that smooth, cold face. She wore a black mesh of mourning cloth that hid blue eyes— one that wept over a dead lover, the other that swept the room for a replacement.
Then she opened her mouth. “All right everyone, on the bus!”
She was a decoy, a prop. Hired by Esotouric Tours’ “Bus Adventures Into the Secret Heart of L.A.” to lead us in search of noir writer Raymond Chandler. It worked: She looked like one of those dames in Farewell, My Lovely or The Long Goodbye, the girl who walks into Philip Marlowe’s office and wipes a crocodile tear off her cheek while eyeing the hard, stiff barrel of Detective Marlowe’s gun sitting on the desk. What did I care? I was a local, crunched in a back seat of the bus, next to the toilet. It was a Saturday. I was sober.
Chandler. If you’re from L.A., or if you’ve ever watched detective movies, you know him. Even if you haven’t read any of his seven novels, his writings have at least brush-stroked your image of Los Angeles. Journalist Jess Bravin, who proposed the idea of Raymond Chandler Square (go to the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga, which is where Chandler put Marlowe’s smoky, whiskey-odor office), said, “Of all the artists of the twentieth century, perhaps no one shaped the image of Los Angeles more than did Raymond Chandler.”
Watch any movie with Bogart wearing a fedora, and you’re tapping into Chandler. Chinatown with Jack Nicholson, or the ominous Sunset Boulevard with William Holden and Gloria Swanson, tip their hats to Chandler’s dark prose. Then there are Chandler’s twisty metaphors: “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” He’s addictive, like the third shot of bourbon slid to you by a cynical bartender who’s…sorry.
Most of the bus riders were out-of-town tourists who wanted to see the Los Angeles that Chandler knew. Marlowe meets Agnes Lozelle at Bullocks Wilshire department store at 3050 Wilshire Boulevard on a cold, rainy night in The Big Sleep.The upscale store closed in 1993, and the art deco building is now home to Southwestern Law School. We drove by the Bank of America building on South Hill Street, where Chandler worked for the Dabney Oil Syndicate as a vice president, until his love of the drink lost him the job. It’s not really much to see, especially if you drive by it in a tour bus.
But Chandler made these buildings into more than just buildings. He’s the one you can credit (or blame) for the murky, mucky image that many still have of Los Angeles. When I walk down Wilshire Boulevard today, I don’t sense that darkness as much as Chandler did. Then again, I love Los Angeles, while Chandler referred to the city as having the personality of a paper cup.
We’ve still got our muck. I can go down to the L.A. River (which is a giant cement trough that runs rampant through the city, trickling brown water toward the sea) and talk with the homeless, or get on a bus to MacArthur Park and visit the birthplace of the most dangerous international gang on the planet, the Mara Salvatrucha.
But I can also take a walk in Beverly Hills—where Chandler walked, where he had Marlowe meander—and visit the boutiques on Wilshire, the high-end coffee shops and, in the Hollywood District, tattoo parlors so nice you’d think it possible to use your Triple A discount card in there. In West Hollywood, young men and women walk by with iPods in their ears and earrings in their noses. No one’s very threatening. And that southern California sunshine that I’ve become so attached to? You don’t see it much in Chandler’s books.
Still, what he wrote has the ring of truth in it. Like most sharp observers of L.A., Chandler wasn’t a local. He was born in Chicago in 1888 and grew up in England. At a young age he showed literary promise: Before returning to the United States in 1912, Chandler had published 27 poems and his first story, “The Rose-Leaf Romance.” He served in the Canadian Army, then the Royal Air Force during World War I. In 1924 he married Pearl Cecily Hurlburt, who was two decades, two marriages and two divorces older than Chandler.
After the war Chandler moved to San Francisco where he worked in a bank and wrote for the Daily Express. Later he acquired the job at Dabney Oil, and kept it from 1922 to 1932. It was the drink that did in the job: He had a habit of starting a bottle on a Thursday and finishing a second or third bottle by Monday.
Losing Dabney Oil may have been his motivation to get behind the typewriter once again. He began writing stories for Black Mask magazine. He was 45; his wife supported his new habit; he devoted entire days to writing. He studied the best in pulp fiction at the time, such as Erle Stanley Gardner (the creator of Perry Mason), and spent half a year writing his first crime story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.” It appeared in December 1933 in Black Mask, the top magazine for hardboiled literature.
His fourth published story, “Killer in the Rain,” was a pivotal one, as it brought Philip Marlowe into the world. Marlowe, a 38-year-old P.I., is a moral man in an immoral world. He’s smart, in his late 30s, tall and has gray eyes and a hard jaw. College-educated, he listens to classical music, and works on chess problems by himself. Marlowe is the man of all the novels, and Marlowe brought his creator to the world’s attention.
Now, looking out at the Los Angeles streets from an airconditioned tour bus, I couldn’t find Marlowe. No fedoras, no black suits and ties and fewer people smoking, of course. In fact, what is missing in Chandler’s novels now walks the streets: This is the most diverse city in the country. Latinos now make up most of L.A.’s population, though African, Chinese, Armenian, Korean, Indonesian, Iraqi and Iranian Americans are not far behind. Chandler focused on the grit of L.A., but he didn’t see much of its diversity. The color of the city hasn’t changed so much as it’s become more colorful. You wouldn’t know from Chandler’s novels, for instance, that L.A. has always been home for Latinos and, for most of the past century, African Americans.
Still, we have Chandler to thank for opening a certain door: He dared to study the worst in American literature— pulp—and make of it a true literary movement. In this way, he went into the darker, forbidden areas of the human heart, corners that few of us wish to visit. The crime fiction writer today may speak in English mixed with Spanish or Indonesian, but we still look to that first voice, Marlowe’s, as a guide into the muck that is noir literature.
If you want to see the Los Angeles of the 1930s and ’40s, you could take Esotouric Tours, but I’d not recommend it. The guides’ passion for Chandler made them less than articulate in their commentary. You won’t get much of a history of L.A., though you will get some tidbits on downtown architecture. My advice? Buy a brochure of the area, get on a city bus or hit the sidewalk. Even better, read a couple of Chandler novels before you get here. Then you’ll sense it all right, Marlowe’s L.A.
But never mind all that, Charlie. The busload of tourists who spoke in northern Minnesota accents and stared up at the tall buildings of my town—I didn’t care for them. The dame, up front. The one with lips dipped in the blood of a fresh kill, and hair so blonde she could cause global warming up and down Sunset. Yeah, she pretended to work for the tour company, but she had troubles of her own. I’d roll her a cigarette and buy her a whiskey, and maybe, if I was lucky, we’d both live to see the morning….
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.