“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. . . .”
The above is from “The Red Wind.” It’s among the most quoted passages by mystery writer Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s novels and short stories have been called “an encyclopedia of Los Angeles.” The City of Angels is more a state of mind than an actual place, as Chandler demonstrates in the following:
“I used to like this town. A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven-hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the inter-urban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style. . . . It had the climate they just yap about now. 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.”
The voice is that of Phillip Marlow, the hard-boiled private detective who inhabits the mean streets of Chandler’s Los Angeles. Marlow’s cynical voice recalls that of actor Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and “The Big Sleep,” the latter based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler.
“We’ve got the flash restaurants and night clubs . . . the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup. . . . Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood—and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail order city. Everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.”
When Raymond Chandler spun his best yarns, from 1933 to 1943, the Los Angeles Basin was a vast, arid, patchwork of farms, oil fields and small towns, connected by a network of two-lane highways. Los Angeles was the center, growing in fits and starts beside a riverbed that was dry ten months out of the year. To the west was Hollywood, Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean; to the south was Long Beach, Wilmington, San Pedro, the L.A. Harbor, and Signal Hill, with its forest of oil derricks; to the east was Pasadena, San Bernardino, Riverside, and orange groves as far as the eye could see; to the north was rural San Fernando Valley, and more orange groves. Chandler connected the whole in his seven novels, and dozens of short stories that appeared in pulp fiction magazines. The following is a night ride along the Santa Monica Bay, from “The Big Sleep.”
“We drove away . . . through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses down on the sand close to the rumble of surf and larger houses built back on the shapes behind. A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet vast emptiness. . . .”
Marlow had his office (“my doghouse”) in a rundown Los Angeles office building, as described in “The Little Sister”: “The pebbled glass door panel is lettered in flaked black paint: ‘Phillip Marlow . . . Investigations.’ It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor, in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization. The door is locked, but next door to it is another door with the same legend which is not locked. Come on in—there’s nobody in here but me and a big bluebottle fly. But not if you’re from Manhattan, Kansas.”
In “The High Window” he describes the world outside his office. “It was getting dark outside now. The rushing sound of the traffic had died a little and the air from the open window, not yet cool from the night, had that tired end-of-the day smell of dust, automobile exhaust, sunlight rising from the hot walls and sidewalks, the remote smell of food in a thousand restaurants and perhaps, drifting down from the residential hills above Hollywood—if you had a nose like a hunting dog—a touch of that peculiar tomcat smell that eucalyptus trees give off in warm weather.”
PHILIP MARLOW'S ROAD TRIP
The following (from “The Little Sister”) is a particular favorite of mine. It’s a road trip out of Hollywood that goes through the San Fernando Valley to Ventura County before swinging south back to L.A. along the coast, a journey of about seventy miles.
“I drove east on Sunset but 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 the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped down Fords shot in and out of 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 sloughed 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, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.
“Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. . . . 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 drove on to the Oxnard cut-off and turned back toward the ocean. The big eight-wheelers and sixteen-wheelers were streaming north, all hung over with orange lights. On the right the great fat solid Pacific trudging into shore like a scrubwoman going home. No moon, no fuss, hardly a sound of the surf. No smell. None of the harsh wild smell of the sea. A California night. . . .
“I saw 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. Fifty stories high, solid in marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.”
MORE OF CHANDLER'S "GLITTERING MOSAIC"
Want more? Try one of Chandler’s Big Four: “Farewell, My Lovely, “The Lady in the Lake,” “The Big Sleep” and “The High Window.” All great reads, rife with abundant imagery.
“Chandler stopped the Los Angeles kaleidoscope,” is how one critic described these novels. “He arrested its spinning, so confusing to most writers who have tried to see the city clearly; and then he fixed in prose of poetic intensity the brilliant bits and pieces, until we find in his ‘Big Four’ a glittering mosaic of greater Los Angeles from San Bernardino to the sea.”