One of the Places Where It All Began

Last week’s run-in with Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” set off a comparison in my mind that worked well in memory. Now, I wanted to prove it out.

Accordingly, I traveled to the Los Angeles of the early 1950s, a place, the author said, that had the personality of a paper cup. He had similar things to say about the satellite cities surrounding Los Angeles, imparting to the terrain a sense of conflicted admiration, tempered by wariness. It was a place that had just begun to come forcefully back from its involvement in World War II, a place where servicemen had seen on their way out to the Pacific Theater of War – and back from it.

The Los Angeles of the early 1950s was wisecracking, optimistic, eager to make up for lost time. People were there to be all the things they could not have been or become at home, say Manhattan, Kansas. Raymond Chandler wrote of it like a conniving court reporter, planning on selling off the juicy details to the emerging tabloids and gossip columns. Los Angeles was a place where the afternoon light and the evening morals bent in the California sun. When Chandler wrote of it, what came out, seemingly with no effort, but with the sense of having been etched or chiseled rather than written, was a style, attitude, and ethos that has influenced mystery writers the world over. (Santa Barbara’s own Ken Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, and Boston’s own Robert Parker carry the Chandler legacy forward.)

Raymond Chandler died in 1959; his novels still hold up, whether they are read in text or listened to on CDs by Elliott Gould, whose wry, pestered voice seems to embody the very essence of Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s iconic private investigator.

The Chandler work I chose to read, more or less as a springboard for comparison with the Michael Chabon, was Chandler’s fifth novel, “The Little Sister,” which begins as so many of the Philip Marlowe novels do with a person gone missing, a person the police can’t be bothered with until there is proof of something more menacing having happened. People go missing all the time, the police tell Orfamay Quest, offering the cynical wisdom that maybe her brother, Orrin, isn’t really missing – he simply doesn’t want to be found.

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are generally agreed to be the wellspring of the modern mystery, their fans as fervid in their choices as, say, Mac computer users are in their scorn for the PC user. Actually, each admired the work of the other; each broke into publishing in the crumbly pages of the quintessential pulp mystery magazine, Black Mask. Although there was no possibility of mistaking the work of one for the other, there were the additional similarities of each being a stunningly effective prose stylist, coupled with the fact that neither was a particularly good plotter. Each essentially cobbled longer works together from their Black Mask short stories, in essence democratizing murder, blackmail, corruption, and perfidy, wrenching them forcefully from the mannered and wealthy, where they had become associated thanks to such writers as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.

Hammett put San Francisco on the mystery map and Chandler, by virtue of a series of jobs in Los Angeles, set his stories in Southern California. A third major mystery writer, Erle Stanley Gardner, who could and did plot successfully, joined them in Black Mask.

Philip Marlowe (more than likely given his surname as a nod to the Joseph Conrad narrator) agrees to find Orrin Quest, which is more of a Chandler demonstration of Marlowe’s commitment than anything resembling a plot. Looking for his quarry, Marlowe is frequently lied to, deceived, threatened, and challenged. He spends some time in the enclave west of Los Angeles, bordering on Brentwood and Sawtell. Chandler calls it Bay City, intimates its simultaneous affluence, corruption, and seaside atmosphere. He calls the place Bay City, but he can’t fool me – I was born there, in Santa Monica.

You could know Bay City a long time without knowing Idaho Street. And you could know a lot of Idaho Street with- out knowing Number 449. The block in front of it had a broken paving that had almost gone back to dirt. The warped fence of a lumberyard bordered the cracked sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.

This is the locale of the rooming house where Orrin Quest was last known to have lived. This is where Philip Marlowe begins stepping into the surreal and cynical world of Hollywood agents, gangsters, cops on the take, and, of course, Orfamy Quest, who may be from Kansas, but is no Dorothy Gale, looking for a way to get home.

Soon, corpses begin to appear, one with an ice pick in its neck. And still no Orrin, not yet. Raymond Chandler knew how to move action forward, how to put the pressure on his private detective, how to rearrange the furniture of trust and expectation. Philip Marlowe, a college graduate, chess-playing, pipe-smoking nice man, discovers once again that the very clients to whom he feels some loyalty and obligation have withheld vital motives and involvements from him, making the job he took on at a bargain rate seem like the quintessential bad judgment.

Such entanglements are frequent in Chandler novels, which we read in a real sense for the same reasons we read the Inferno segments of Dante, possibly even moving up to the Purgatory section after some of the more menacing characters have been killed off.

“The Big Sleep,” “The High Window,” and “Farewell, My Lovely” are Chandler’s better known works, each one a solid foundation to Chandler’s reputation, all of which are simultaneously labyrinthine and compelling, but if you are going to enter this Chandlerian world of crooks, star-crossed lovers, actors who have gotten in over their head in gambling, sex, marriage, blackmail, or all four at once, “The Little Sister” is the one where the story will gradually seem to have been plausible and approachable after all.

Both Hammett and Chandler seem dismissive of their contemporaries who thought the mystery to be little more than a series of cleverly arranged puzzles, onions of clue and logic to be peeled on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Each has brought the wry humor of the mid century to their work, a kind of prophylactic wrapping of their hand with a towel before using it to smash a window to gain entry to a place forbidden them by polite convention or corrupt politics.

Fond as I am of Hammett, I believe Chandler will outlast him by at least 50 years. “The Little Sister” is going on 60, gritty, great posture, a steady gaze, not a hint of jowliness. There’s a touch of gray at the edges, but you know, don’t you, that gray adds to the distinctiveness.