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Trouble Was His Business -- Raymond Chandler

March 28, 2009 | 10:00 am

Tour Casts New Light on Raymond Chandler's Old L.A.

* A Minnesota couple trace the steps of the novelist's best-known character.

April 4, 2004

By Erika Hayasaki, Times Staff Writer

Bonnie Olson stood in the lobby of the Oviatt Building on Olive Street downtown on Saturday, beneath the ceilings adorned with triangular glass, and read a passage from the Raymond Chandler novel "The Lady in the Lake," in which he described this very setting.

"The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it were breaking his heart," she read, explaining that the structure was called the Treloar Building in the book.

"The images he's able to evoke of Los Angeles and the past are powerful, maybe more powerful than actually seeing it in reality," said Olson, who led eight people on a walking tour of settings for Chandler's books.

Olson and her husband, Brian, were in town -- from Minnesota of all places -- to lead tours based on their new guide, "Tailing Philip Marlowe."

The self-published guide, available at Caravan Books on Grand Avenue, points out sites mentioned in Chandler's books, whose best-known character was private detective Philip Marlowe.

Olson said she admires Chandler's work because of his poignant storytelling, language and dialogue. He is studied along with great poets, writers and essayists, she said. Many consider him to be one of Los Angeles' quintessential writers, who weaved real places, people and events into his fiction, a strength that inspired fellow mystery writer Ross MacDonald to write: "Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence."

For several decades, Olson, an English teacher, and her husband, who works for the city of Minneapolis, have been enchanted by Chandler's descriptions of Los Angeles, like the steps of City Hall, where Marlowe lighted a cigarette as the cold wind blew in "Trouble Is My Business." Then there was the Bradbury Building on South Broadway about which Chandler wrote: "The dark narrow lobby was as dirty as a chicken yard" in "The High Window," in which the structure was called the Belfont Building.

The 2 1/2-hour tour began at the Oviatt Building and continued toward the Los Angeles Public Library, which Chandler mentioned in "The Long Goodbye."

The group headed to Bunker Hill, stopping at the top of the mothballed Angels Flight cable trolley, which Chandler described in "The High Window."

The group hiked to the 2nd Street tunnel, which Chandler compared to the barrel of a gun in "The Big Sleep": "The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel."

When the couple visited Los Angeles three years ago, they wanted to explore places mentioned in the novels, which captured the city in the 1930s and '40s. But they said they could not find a guide. So they returned home and combed through all of Chandler's stories, flagging descriptions of settings with Post-it notes.

Then the Olsons visited Los Angeles again, searching for the sites, and spent hours in the library researching the city's architectural history.

The couple put together the 112-page guidebook with the help of family members and a printer in Fargo, N.D., thinking they could use the books as Christmas gifts.

"We did it to have fun together," Bonnie Olson said. "We had no idea it was going to be such a niche."

Australian native Heath Ryan, 32, a fan of Chandler's book "Playback," moved to Los Angeles three years ago. He said he already had an idea of what the city was like from Chandler's descriptions.

"You get here and feel almost familiar with this place, even though you have never been here," Ryan said.

Ray Chin, 32, a downtown resident, said Chandler's work has helped him understand how the city has evolved.

"It isn't so much the images of the city," Chin said. "It's the historical knowledge he gives about the city. It's fascinating to see all of the changes."

On Saturday, those on the tour hiked up to Bunker Hill, where they rested on rows of marble benches in a courtyard overlooking a pond, surrounded by towering skyscrapers. The outdoor cafe tables were mostly empty, and a hair salon was closed. Beneath the courtyard, homeless men and women slept on the grass, and the stairs smelled like urine.

Many years ago, Chandler described the setting, in "The High Window," like this: "Bunker is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town.... Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shield the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers."

Olson read that passage and her husband explained that this was the neighborhood where Marlowe found a dead body in an apartment.

"It was a romantic time, a different time," Ryan said. "There were no freeways. It was the center of the city. Now it feels a bit dead."

Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler's death, the Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times' stories about his life and influence. We invite the Daily Mirror's readers to share their thoughts.