inRetrospect: Finding Raymond Chandler
July 22, 2011 by
The other night, after learning I would be writing an essay eulogizing Raymond Chandler on his 123rd birthday, an elderly neighbor knocked on my door. She was looking for her millionaire cousin, with whom she hadn’t talked in several years. She gave me a name, a couple of addresses in Beverly Hills (where else?) and an order to call her as soon I had a lead. For a few hours that night, searching on Google, I felt like a private detective.
Since moving to L.A., Chandleresque moments like these happen to me far too often. Is it our proximity to Hollywood? The labyrinthine suburban sprawl of the Valley? Or the veneer of sterility and sunshine that clings to a city filled with sin? Raymond Chandler’s works, decades after they were written, are still relevant to me.
Raymond Chandler—born in Chicago in 1883, educated in England, vice president of an oil company until his forties—seems an unlikely creator of Los Angeles noir. Yet with the publication of his first novel, The Long Goodbye in 1939, he began a decades-long career as a detective writer that extended to short stories and screenplays.
He co-wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity along with many other film noir classics. Gangsters, molls, and crazy dames populate the diary of Chandler’s serial protagonist Philip Marlowe, a workaday Hollywood detective with a penchant for hardboiled prose. While Chandler died in 1959, twenty-five years after he began to write, he finished seven and a half novels, all set in Southern California.
Armed with nothing more than a wad of cash, a camera, and his faded picture, I went searching for Raymond Chandler in Hollywood. While the city is far more Disneyfied than when he walked its streets, I figured if I looked hard enough I could still find traces of his presence.
I started at the public library on Ivar and Selma. Going up to the reference librarian, I flashed Raymond’s mug. She said she hadn’t seen him. I said, you may know him from a couple of novels like The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye.
She laughed and said, “Oh! Chandler! I didn’t recognize him from the picture.” I said I’d try the fiction aisle.
Exiting the library, a couple of novels in hand (including The Little Sister, which I haven’t read yet), I headed with my embarrassed girlfriend in tow to the Pacific Security Building on Hollywood and Cahuenga. According to several sources, this seemed the most likely location of Marlowe’s fictional office. After poking around in the alleyways looking for an entrance and coming up empty-handed, I flashed Chandler’s picture to a man hawking tours. He looked positively frightened, so I moved on pretty quick.
We had lunch at the Musso & Frank Grill, a favorite of Chandler’s and other L.A. literary luminaries. Open since 1919, the menu hasn’t changed much. I was tempted to order the lamb roast, if not for its above $30 price tag. Something about this place felt right for me to commune with Chandler. At the end of the meal, I showed a picture of Chandler to the hostess and asked if he had been there recently. Her response: “He looks familiar.” I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Geiger’s Rare Books on Hollywood Boulevard (from The Big Sleep) is now a beauty parlor. Marlowe’s neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills seemed completely unchanged from the 1940s, but possibly too steep for a private dick. And the El Adobe Café across from Paramount, where Chandler lunched and took meetings with execs, was completely empty when I visited. If Chandler was alive and well, then he sure had gone into hiding. And fifty years after his death, he’d left little evidence of his literary and personal reign in Los Angeles.
Yet driving back to my girlfriend’s house on the Hollywood Freeway, I didn’t feel like I had completely lost the trail. What good would a city be to a detective where everything and anyone can be discovered? That this air of mystery exists is what makes Los Angeles so good a city to be lost in. Would Philip Marlowe’s practice really flourish in Topeka? I can’t help thinking Chandler wouldn’t have wanted L.A. any other way.
About The Author:
Jonathan Peters is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. He graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in history. In addition to inReads.com, he is a contributor to LAist.com, as well as Next Step magazine. He blogs about screenwriting at http://alternatewrites.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @jonpeters87