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Trouble Was His Business -- Raymond Chandler

March 3, 2009 | 10:00 am
   
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.

The MEAN Streets

The Heat, the Winds; It's the Season for Discovering Raymond Chandler's L.A.

October 3, 1987

By SAM HALL KAPLAN, Times Design Critic

This is the season when the high-desert air, baked by the sun, becomes the Santa Ana winds that lash out across the city to the west, fanning fires, creating havoc and generally getting on everyone's nerves.

For Los Angeles, it is the Mean Season, when during the day the air conditioner breaks down, the car overheats and the ice cream melts; and during the night the neighbors fight, the burglar alarm won't shut off and the cats won't shut up.

Marlowe Sums Up L.A.

For me, it is a time to stay out of harm's way, avoid the freeways, Dodger games, cocktail parties and conversations with the ex-wife; give in to the whims of the children and the present wife; have an extra beer, water the lawn and reread Raymond Chandler.

His detective-hero, martyr, design critic, alter ego Philip Marlowe summed up the city he experienced, and the season, in "The Long Goodbye":

"When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulders of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. . . . Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. . . . People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness."

Exactly where Marlowe is standing and the locations of other buildings and places from Chandler's rich legacy have challenged readers with curiosity, writers without much else to do and editors looking for a gimmick since his novels and short stories began appearing in the '30s.

As a result, various articles have been written, maps published and tours offered purporting to locate the scenes and settings of Marlowe's doings and undoings in Los Angeles.

But as someone who has dog-eared Chandler's novels, and scoured the Los Angeles cityscape, I don't trust the gumshoeing of others. And there is no way to check with the prime suspect: Chandler died -- nonviolently -- in 1959 in La Jolla at the age of 70.

And even if Chandler were alive today I don't think I would trust the addresses he might offer. Certainly Marlowe wouldn't trust him, for the Los Angeles that Chandler created was a conscious construct of allusions and lies.

Still, there are enough clues in the novels, and in publications such as "The Raymond Chandler Mystery Map of Los Angeles" (Aaron Blake Publishers: $4.95), to aid the curious in search of Marlowe's Los Angeles. If not exact locations, then similar moods and scenes.

The house from which Marlowe viewed the city in "The Long Goodbye" is off Lookout Mountain Avenue, above Laurel Canyon.

Site of House Unknown

The avenue still exists, off Laurel Canyon Boulevard, but we don't know where the house is.

More evocative is his house in "The High Window" -- clinging to a cliff above High Tower Drive in Hollywood Heights, marked and reached by a fanciful elevator tower.

That is where he also lived in the movie version of "The Long Goodbye," starring Elliott Gould, and that in my mind is where Marlowe belongs, drink in hand. You can find the tower at the end of High Tower Drive, a short street that runs north from Camrose Drive, which is west of Highland Avenue. Apartments, duplexes and single-family houses still cling to the cliffs above the drive. The elevator, however, is not open to the public; you need a key to get in.

The detective's office was two small rooms on the sixth floor, in the rear, of the Cahuenga Building (It might be 615 Cahuenga Blvd., but then again, it might not), with a pebbled glass door panel lettered "Philip Marlowe . . . Investigations" in flaked black paint. It is described by Marlowe, in detail, in "The High Window":

"I looked into the reception room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond. Three hard chairs and a swivel chair, flat desk with a glass top, five green filing cases, three of them full of nothing, a calendar and a framed license bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hatrack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out. . . ."

No Fan of Office Buildings

Marlowe does not like office buildings. The Belfont downtown on 9th Street, as described in "The High Window," "was eight stories of nothing in particular that had got itself pinched off between a large green and chromium cut-rate suit emporium and a three-story and basement garage that made a noise like lion cages at feeding time. The small dark narrow lobby was as dirty as a chicken yard."

There is no Belfont there, but there are other buildings nearby fitting the description. Walking east on 9th at dusk, then north on Spring, one can get a feel of the hard-edged city of the 1930s and '40s, and now.

Marlowe also does not paint a pretty picture of what goes on in these buildings. In the Fulwider at Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue, described in "The Big Sleep," there were "plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous. Painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that crawled there to die, mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railroad clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer -- if the postal inspectors didn't catch up with them first."

Government buildings do not fare particularly well either. Bay City, a thinly disguised Santa Monica, is the site of numerous Marlowe adventures. Marlowe describes Bay City's City Hall in "Farewell, My Lovely":

"It was a cheap-looking building for so prosperous a town. It looked more like something out of the Bible Belt. Bums sat unmolested in a long row on the retaining wall that kept the front lawn--now mostly Bermuda grass -- from falling into the street. . . . The cracked walk and the front steps led to open double doors in which a knot of obvious City Hall fixers hung around waiting for something to happen so they could make something else out of it. They all had well-fed stomachs, the careful eyes, the nice clothes and the reach-me-down manners. They gave me about four inches to get by."

The scene at City Hall at 1685 Main St. is more polished now, but the Santa Monica Pier at the foot of Colorado Boulevard still can have a raucous quality, and, in the evening when the fog rolls in, a hint of mystery. As described in "The Big Sleep," it is the Bay City Pier, from which Marlowe and others catch a launch to an offshore gambling ship.

Chandler also played with addresses. "You could know Bay City a long time without knowing Idaho Street. And you could know a lot of Idaho Street without knowing Number 449," he writes in "The Little Sister." And he is correct, for the scene described certainly is not Idaho Avenue in Santa Monica- - not with a lumber yard, broken paving and "rusted rails of a spur track (that) turned in to a pair of high, chained wooden gates that seem not to have been opened for 20 years."

That sounds more like something off of Colorado Avenue, in Santa Monica's industrial area.

But Chandler adds that "Number 449 had a shallow, paintless front porch on which five wood and cane rockers loafed dissolutely, held together with wire and the moisture of the beach air. The green shades over the lower windows of the house were two-thirds down and full of cracks. Beside the front door there was a large printed sign 'No Vacancies.' " The latter description clearly places the house in Santa Monica's Ocean Park neighborhood. For a hint of that mood, look at some of the fading beach houses, many divided into apartments, in the area bordered by Pico, Lincoln and Ocean Park boulevards.

There is no mistaking Malibu in the description of Montemar Vista in "Farewell, My Lovely":

"I got down to Montemar Vista as the light began to fade, but there was still a fine sparkle on the water and the surf was breaking far out in long smooth curves. . . . Beyond it the huge emptiness of the Pacific was purple gray. Montemar Vista was a few dozen houses of various sizes and shapes hanging by their teeth and eyebrows to a spur of mountain and looking as if a good sneeze would drop them down among the box lunches on the beach."

Canyon Murder Site

In "The Big Sleep," Marlowe is at the palatial home of Gen. Sternwood, where "faint and far off" he can see some of the old wooden derricks from which the Sternwoods had made their money. Says Marlowe, the narrator:

"Most of the field was public now, cleaned up and donated to the city by Gen. Sternwood. But a little of it was still producing in groups of wells pumping five or six barrels a day. The Sternwoods, having moved up the hill, could no longer smell the stale sump water or the oil, but they could still look out of their front windows and see what made them rich. "

But Marlowe adds "I don't suppose they would want to."

As for the house, the model for it is said to have stood on the 7000 block of Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, where one can see on a clear day the Baldwin Hills oil fields on South La Brea Avenue.

A portrait of Beverly Hills between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards is painted in one line in the short story "Mandarin Jade": "The Philip Courtney Prendergasts lived on one of those wide, curving streets where the houses seem to be too close together for their size and the amount of money they represent." That is not a bad sketch of the area today.

House in Pasadena

A house in the Oak Knoll section of Pasadena is described in "The High Window" as "a big solid cool-looking house with Burgundy brick walls, a terra cotta tile roof, and a white stone trim. . . ."

It could be one of a number of houses there. The Chandler Mystery Map puts it on the 1200 block of Wentworth Avenue. You take your pick.

The mood and directions are quite clear in "The Little Sister" -- as Marlowe drives east on Sunset Boulevard, but doesn't go home.

"At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over the Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed north and west towards home and dinner. . . . I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper, hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo."

We have freeways now, but stripped-down cars still shoot in and out of the traffic, drivers wince and grimace and the trucks growl.

Gone is Bunker Hill, which Marlowe described in "The High Window" as "old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town," with "women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look over the street behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank . . . cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it. . . ."

Now these lost souls can be seen on Skid Row, in the doorways on 6th and 7th streets east of Alvarado Street, in the alleys off of Hollywood Boulevard, along the Venice and Santa Monica beachfronts, and even on Rodeo Drive, if only for a few minutes before they are hustled off by the police.

Marlowe's mean city is a little more hidden today, but it is there.
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