Friday, December 17, 2010

Raymond Chandler's raspberry to L.A.

Raymond Chandler had a famously equivocal relationship with Hollywood. Still, I was not prepared for the following, from The Little Sister:
"California, the department-store state. The most of everything and the best of nothing."
or this, about Los Angeles:
"`I used to like this town,' I said, just to be saying something and not to be thinking too hard. `A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. ... People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn't that, but it wasn't a neon-lighted slum, either."
Or here, where Philip Marlowe narrows his focus further in one of the novel's many expressions of weariness or worse with Hollywood:
"Time passed and I sat there hunched over the desk, my chin in a hand, staring at the mustard-yellow plaster of the end wall, seeing on it the vague figure of a dying man with a short ice pick in his hand, and feeling the sting of its point between my shoulder blades. Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody."
Sometimes the disillusioned jibes are funnier and directed less at Hollywood than at its inhabitants:
"She laughed. I guess it was a silvery tinkle where she was. It sounded like somebody putting away saucepans where I was."
Did I mention that Chandler has no star Hollywood's Walk of Fame?

All right, readers, what are your favorite expressions in crime fiction of disgust, disdain or distaste for a place?
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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36 Comments:

Blogger Jake Needham said...

Would it be acceptable for me to cite a passage from one of my own books?

"Pattaya was a slightly shabby beach resort a couple of hours drive south of Bangkok that had a reputation for commercial sex and freewheeling degeneracy sufficient to overwhelm the limitations of most people’s imaginations. Tay had never been to Pattaya. He was no prude, at least he didn’t think he was, but he had heard enough about Pattaya to know that he probably wouldn’t like it very much. To tell the truth, Tay didn’t like anywhere in Thailand very much. Beneath its veneer of exotic cuisine, extravagant temples, and saintly monks lay the dark heart of a country that lived off very little but sex and greed. No matter how you tried to dress the place up, Tay thought, Thailand would always have the soul of a whore."

THE AMBASSADOR'S WIFE
Jake Needham
Published by Marshall Cavendish Int'l, Singapore, 2010

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It would indeed be acceptable and even welcome. Thanks for weighing in.

Your narrator regards Thailand something like the way Philip Marlowe regards Los Angeles in The Little Sister. The word whore occurs a number of times in Chandler's book as well.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

As someone who loves Los Angeles for its flaws, I am familiar with its history dating back to the Tongvas tribe. It has always been corrupt. Marlowe, like all of us real people, see our past from a different point of view than we see our present. Those perfect times Marlowe misses where for white protestant only when the city was run by the rich and supported by the power of the LA Times.

As for the star on the Hollywood's Walk of Fame. As I understand the process, you need a certain number of signatures on a petition and pay a large fee. This is why so many less than major stars get a star when they have a movie to promote. The studio pays for it. Raise the money and they would not mind giving Chandler a star.

Heck, now I am feeling homesick for my favorite city.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Distaste for the charms of the English countryside:

"They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

Sherlock Holmes
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
by Arthur Conan Doyle

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael: One should take into account what Chandler sees as well as what Marlowe sees. I have to think that the tone of The Little Sister reflects the disillusion Chandler, from Chicago by birth and Dulwich College outside London by education, must have felt with Los Angeles. And, beyond biography, I think the corrupting influence of the big city is an old theme in American art.

One has to wonder whether Chandler would want a star that could be bought.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a nice defense of cities, Yvette. I wonder if that passage and others like it were inspirations for the English village mystery.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter that's an interesting thought. I wonder if that was one of the keys that opened the gate.
It would not surprise me.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Slightly off topic, but not completely. Peter I've just posted a conversation between Raymond CHandler and Ian Fleming from 1958 - BBC Archives. You've probably heard it before, but this is a new one on me. Fascinating just to hear their voices.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have to believe that at least some British crime writers used the village mystery to poke fun at sentimental idealization of village life. Comments from readers who know more than I do about English crime writing are welcome.

December 18, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, a great journalist once described himself as 'a heaver of dead cats into the sanctuary.'

I'm not in that league, of course. I'm happy enough just to toss the occasional dead kitten into whatever sanctuary I can find.

There are, however, times I wish I'd kept my big mouth shut. My comments about Hammett being one of them. I don't have anything to say in my own defense, but the following quote from The Little Sister (cut and pasted from christianhumanist.org!) gives me some hope that I'm not the only miserably sour bastard out there:

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about this 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 on north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. 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 car-hops, 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 towards the Ridge Route, staring up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the rain.

Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you’re not human tonight.

The air got cooler. The highway narrowed. The cars were so few now that the headlights hurt. The grade rose against chalk walls and at the top a breeze, unbroken from the ocean, danced casually across the night.

I ate dinner at a place near Thousand Oaks. Bad but quick. Feed ‘em and throw ‘em out. Lots of business. We can’t bother with you sitting over your second cup of coffee, mister. You’re using money space. See those people over there behind the rope? They want to eat. Anyway they think they have to. God knows why they want to eat here. They could do better home out of a can. They’re just restless. Like you. They have to get the car out and go somewhere. Sucker-bait for the racketeers that have taken over the restaurants. Here we go again. You’re not human tonight, Marlowe. . . .

I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Robert Crais writes a series set mostly in Los Angeles but he takes a totally different view. He LOVES the city and when you read his books, you love it too. Not that he's blind to its faults, but he forgives them, like a man in love with a place does. Now that Parker is gone, I think Robert Crais is king.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I posted a link to that interview here. Yes, it was a exciting to hear their voices.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger michael said...

Yvette, I like Crais' work even when he was writing for TV. He is a writer the city likes back. The city loves a winner, winners give the rest of us the hope to continue.

It is hard to explain to others why I love the city. How no matter where I am, my soul remains in L.A. It is the city of dreams. Sometimes those dreams are broken ones. But they never stop being your dreams.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

That's what RC says, Michael. L.A. is the city of dreams. His book, L.A. REQUIEM is full of broken dreams, broken people. GREAT book. But if you don't know about Joe Pike and Elvis Cole's relationship, you need to read a couple of the earlier books first to get caught up. I, for one, can't wait for the next Joe Pike book coming up next month. This is a new direction for RC. I don't think he ever planned on giving Joe his own series. But it's worked out beautifully.

Peter, I do read a lot of British crime. Not all cozies, I like the Brit police procedural too. I read Martha Grimes and Elizabeth George who are both American but write wonderful Brit series. And yes, now that I think on it, it would not surprise me at all if Doyle didn't put his finger on the pulse of village crime and call attention to it. I wonder if Christie was influenced. Probably.
The real question is: who DIDN'T Holmes/Doyle influence?

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, an occasional dead-animal heaving won't go amiss here.

I thought your Hammett comment was usefully provocative, and I hope Elisabeth will agree once she has returned from her Christmas vacation.

The Little Sister was not Chandler's best book, but it must be pretty close to the top in the disillusionment department.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I've read just one of Crais' novels, Stalking the Angel. I do recall its views of tough parts of town, but certainly nothing like the disillusionment in The Little Sister.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The city loves a winner, winners give the rest of us the hope to continue.

Michael, I suspect that the Chandler of The Little Sister would agree with the first part of that statement. He might also add broken to your description of Los Angeles as a city of dreams.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The real question is: who DIDN'T Holmes/Doyle influence?

He influenced all crime writers, assuming he was the first crime writer to enjoy wide and sustained success with what we now call a series character.

I may have to come home and read P.D. James' little book Talking About Detective Fiction. In re British police procedurals, I've read and enjoyed a few of Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond novels, especially The Last Detective.

December 18, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Oh for sure, there's a little bit of Holmes in most every fictional detective, esepcially ones with pronounced eccentricities.

I've been meaning to get my hands on that book as well, Peter. I don't read much P.D. James anymore, but I hear nothing but glowing praise for TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION. I am a fan of Peter Lovesey as well. My favorite book of his: THE HOUSE SITTER. Though I remember THE LAST DETECTIVE fondly. (Vaguely but fondly.)

In my view the whole point of the country village crime writer is that people are the same all over -a killer in a village kills for the same basic reason(s) as the killer in a crowded metropolis.
Doyle, of course, knew and recognized this. Christie and the rest of the Golden Agers knew this as well (though I don't think it was only from Doyle pointing it out). It is probably easier to 'glamorize' a crime when writing about it in a more 'controlled' setting.

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

"He pressed the trigger. Disgusted with himself, with all men, all mankind. He emptied the clip."
That is one of my favorite "disgusted with humanity" lines (I'm sure you can guess the book, Peter).

Also, "The Goodbye Kiss" and "Death's Dark Abyss" revel in disdain and disgust (by Massimo Carlotto).

I love Chandler's work. He does have his own "plaque" mounted on a street light proclaiming "Chandler's Hollywood Square" in a busy Hollywood intersection, which is much more visible than a star.
"The Little Sister" may not be as tight as say "The Lady in the Lake", but I still love it. I like the toupee gag. I also love the "hold it Marlowe, you're not human tonight" passage.
All right. Why would I be? I'm sitting in that office, playing with a dead fly and in pops this dowdy little item from Manhattan, Kansas, and chisels me down to a shopworn twenty to find her brother. He sounds like a creep but she wants to find him. So with this fortune clasped to my chest, I trundle down to Bay City and the routine I go through is so tired I'm half asleep on my feet. I meet nice people, with and without ice picks in their necks.

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I'm on shaky ground about English mysteries, especially of the village kind. Anything I have to say will be an uneducated guess. Holmes eccentricities could well be his most lasting gift to crime fiction. The recent Guy Ritchie movie did some good and interesting things with those eccentricities.

The police officer alienated from his superiors is another crime-fiction staple, and Peter Lovesey did a brilliant job with it in The Last Detective. His Bertie and the Seven Bodies is a highly entertaining English country-house mystery that is both a fine example of the genre and an amusing send-up of it. It's a virtuoso performance.

It is probably easier to 'glamorize' a crime when writing about it in a more 'controlled' setting.

A setting such as a country house of a village. Yes, that makes great sense. It's probably why the game Clue was set in a big house instead of in the streets of a big American city.

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solea, I can't immediately guess the book, I'm afraid.

I didn't know Chandler has his own placque. Good for Los Angeles. I quite like the toupee gag, and I agree that The Little Sister was not quite as tight as, say, The Long Goodbye, which I had read just previously.

"Dowdy little item." That's good!

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

The first quote is from "One Helluva Mess", of course!
I love when Marlowe refers to LA as "chislertown", that remains the best description of LA!

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! My excuse is that it's been a couple of years since I read the book. Montale may be disgusted with humanity, but not with his city.

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

That is true, but it is not Montale who says that. It is his friend, Ugo (or Manu?), who does a suicide by cop/gangster in the opening chapter. He's ready to die.

I think that the book "Zulu" ends with Brian and Ali being disgusted with Cape Town, South Africa.

December 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Izzo was something like Chandler, wasn't he, expressing both yearning and disgust for humanity and his city.

I think Zulu ends on a note of exhaustion, if not disgust, with humanity rather than with a particular location. This is worth comparing with another novel set in South Africa, Roger Smith fine Wake Up Dead. (Smith's earlier Mixed Blood pays explicit tribute to Chandler.)

December 19, 2010  
Blogger J said...

Chandler's Red Wind. He opens with a great description of East Ellay in September, when the hot, dry Santa Ana winds arrive. IN ways a bit...different then his Ho-wood writing.

Or...who could forget Poisonville. Hammett's Red Harvest, and barely fictionalized Butte, MT, during the copper strike days. In 20s n 30s, More ho's per street than ANY town in the west, NV included

December 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You could well be right, though I'd always considered the opening to "Red Wind" lyrical rather than bitter. (Here’s one crime writer’s homage to that famous passage.)

Same with Poisonville. I read Red Harvest just a few weeks ago, so its memory is still fresh. The portrait of the town is so wonderfully sustained that I have trouble thinking of it as merely a spew of venom.

December 27, 2010  
Blogger J said...

Perhaps not venomous, but neither story seems particularly lyrical--(cue Mingus....not moptops). That's Red as in blood, which is to say ....moider. One senses something nearly Dantean in some of Chandler's LA scenes, really--also in Farewell my Lovely, which has many nocturnish descriptions of Ellay and Angelenos. Perhaps Chandler was not quite as skilled as Hammett in terms of noir-diction, but in ways Ray's trip...darker. Hammett was a nihilist, IMHE. Spade's world has little or no meaning. Not the case for Marlowe. He's fighting for Truth and Justice, even if that's nearly impossible. (that probably sounds trite, but...so be it)

December 27, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Woo-hoo, Mingus! I like "Ysabel's Table Dance" as a soundtrack to Terry Lennox's trip to Mexico in "The Long Goodbye."

Chandler could be darker, yes, because a romantic is more easily disappointed than a nihilist (or, to use another philosophical term applied to Hammett, a pragmatist.)

December 27, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Those perfect times Marlowe misses where [sic] for white protestant[s] only when the city was run by the rich and supported by the power of the LA Times."

At this late date, I was tempted to let this whopper pass by but since the subject is Chandler I just can't...

I, too am familiar with the history of Los Angeles and very familiar with its history from ca. 1880 to the present. When Marlowe laments: "...a long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. ... People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn't that, but it wasn't a neon-lighted slum, either" he is echoing Chandler's own sentiments (that may be found in his letters). Chandler (no relation to the LA Times dynasty!), although guilty of being a "white Protestant," frequently lambasted the rich in his fiction and his letters. Insurmountable corruption and the perverse power of the Times and, especially pertinent to the history of LA, land speculators and developers, are also frequent themes.

I think Marlowe (Chandler) should be taken at his word in the quote above. When RTC arrived in LA in 1912, the quote from The Little Sister is a pretty accurate description of what LA was like. I've read a number of memoirs of silent film era filmmakers that echo Marlowe's memories.

January 05, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I wish I could "channel" Chandler's thoughts on to-have-or-not-to-have a star on the Walk of Fame... The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce jealously guards its WoF copyright and an extortionate fee of $30,000 is charged for each sucker's (I mean, celebrity's) successful nomination.

Here's some info on "Raymond Chandler Square" at the cross section of Hollywood Blvd. and Cahuenga Blvd.

One avid Chandler fan has gone so far as to rent an office in the building on the SW corner of Cahuenga and outfitted it with as many elements described by Marlowe (down to one year's Dionne Quintuplets calendar) in the novels. His computer stays out of sight during tours...

January 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I have considerable sympathy for your position on Chandler's feeling for Los Angeles and the people who live in it. No reader of his work could conclude that Chandler had any great love for the city's rich, white elite. If anything, his disgust for such folks sometimes seems almost puritanical.

I also agree with your implication that "Marlowe (Chandler)" should be taken at his word. In fact, what seemed obvious polemical intrusions of the author's voice at the expense of the narrator's detracted from my enjoyment of the book. That's one reason I thought the novel inferior to The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep, both of which I've also read recently.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian McKinty says he dropped in on the apartment at 891 Post St. in San Francisco where Hammett wrote The Dain Curse, Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe I should do the same, then head south to Los Angeles and drop in on the Marlowe office. (And yes, I remember the description of the Dionne quintuplets calendar in The Big Sleep. The quints were born in 1934, I think. Marlowe refers to them as "The Quints," without the family name.)

January 06, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I've visited 891 Post St., too. For re-creating an evocative milieu it was right up there with Freud's home/consulting rooms at Berggasse 19 in Vienna! Remember, 891 Post is also the model for Sam Spade's apt.

I agree with your assessment of The Little Sister. As you said, "a romantic is more easily disappointed than a nihilist...or pragmatist." And RTC was bitterly disappointed with his tenure in Hollywood.

January 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, even though I did not enter Hammett's old apartment, my recent wanderings in Hammett country enhanced my reading of The Maltese Falcon.

January 06, 2011  

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