Aerial view of Los Angeles from the south 1940’s
by Mike Valerio
They seemed to fit together right from the very beginning. The right town and the right words.
“The lights of the city were an endlessly glittering sheet. Neon signs glowed and flashed. The languid ray of a searchlight prodded about among high faint clouds…. The car went past the oil well that stands in the middle of La Cienega Boulevard, then turned off onto a quiet street fringed with palm trees….” —from “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot”
It was the very first piece of detective fiction written by one of the greatest of all mystery writers, Raymond Chandler. “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” published in 1933, appeared in the rough-edged pulp pages of Black Mask magazine.
In the 70 years since he penned that first tale of crime and corruption, Chandler has come to occupy a singular place in the cultural history of his adopted town. Called by S.J. Perleman “the major social historian of Los Angeles,” Chandler used his tough, bourbon-soaked poetry to re-create the city as a character, as real and intense as Chandler’s private eye hero, Philip Marlowe.
With his distinct descriptions of all that was unique about L.A. (“The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel, but I didn’t move.”), Chandler introduced our beautiful and brutal city to more readers than any other author, despite once declaring Los Angeles had “the personality of a paper cup.”
In post-World War II America, Los Angeles was a frontier town, ruled by a crime syndicate that was under the control of a cabal of shady politicians, lawyers and police officials. Chandler turned the greed, cruelty and despair of his crime-infested metropolis into the stuff of fiction. For millions of people around the world, he defined not only a city, but the genre of the hard-boiled detective story and even the style of movie-making that came to be known as film noir. His influence on mystery novelists from Ross Macdonald to Robert B. Parker, and on movies and television shows from Chinatown to The Rockford Files to L.A. Confidential have been well-documented by scholars and critics. Chandler’s path in creating that legacy is in evidence at the Special Collections Division of the UCLA Research Library, which contains the most extensive collection of Chandler’s work in the world.
Manhunt for an Identity
Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888. His alcoholic father frequently abandoned his family for extended periods, a habit that ultimately caused the divorce of Chandler’s parents. Eventually, young Raymond’s father vanished for good.
Chandler’s mother filed for divorce. She saved enough money for a move to England, where she and Raymond lived with relatives. Beginning at age 7, he received a proper British education at a school in London. He won awards for mathematics and was an avid reader of the classics. At 17, he attended London’s Dulwich College and later studied in France and Germany.
After a time, Chandler returned to London and became a naturalized British subject in order to take a civil service exam. He passed and soon acquired a government clerking position. But Chandler grew bored working as a civil servant and left the British government to work as a journalist and essayist for London’s Daily Express and Bristol’s Western Gazette, for whom he wrote articles on European affairs, along with poetry, reviews and literary essays.
Chandler found his way back to the United States in 1912. Searching for his niche, he worked on an apricot ranch, made tennis rackets in a sporting goods firm and, after studying bookkeeping, became a junior accountant. Chandler’s restlessness during this period was at least in part due to a problem with alcohol. It was a problem that would plague him for the rest of his life. “I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year,” he once said, “just on principle, so he won’t let himself get snotty about it.”
In 1917, Chandler began a year of service with the Gordon Highlanders of the Canadian Army, just after the start of World War I. As a member of the Royal Air Force he saw action in France. Chandler’s first real brushes with violence and death changed him. As a 30-year-old sergeant, he was ordered into trench warfare, leading his platoon into direct machine-gun fire. After that, he said later, “Nothing is ever the same again.” He was discharged in 1918 after sustaining a concussion in combat.
After the war, Chandler returned to America, this time to California (“The department store state,” he would later write. “The most of everything and the best of nothing.”) He worked as a banker in San Francisco and a reporter for Los Angeles’ Daily Express (he was fired after six weeks for being “lousy”) before finally joining L.A.’s Dabney-Johnson Oil Corporation as a bookkeeper.
By 1924, Chandler married Pearl “Cissy” Pascal and was promoted to auditor for the oil company. Soon, he rose to the rank of vice-president, but over the next several years, his battle with alcohol took its toll. After several self-destructive displays of excessive drinking and erratic behavior, he was fired in 1932 for absenteeism, womanizing and drunkenness.
Raymond Chandler was 44 years old.
The Pulp Jungle
The firing was a wake-up call for Chandler. The Great Depression was on and work was scarce. Chandler stopped his excessive drinking (temporarily), picked up a copy of Black Mask and vowed to dedicate his life to writing. The man who would soon turn Los Angeles into a film noir landscape never looked back.
For a novice writer during the Depression, there was no better place to start than the pulps, those thick, cheaply produced magazines filled with dark and bloody tales of mystery, murder and action, all written in the most purple of prose.
A fan of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, Chandler registered himself as a writer in the Los Angeles City Directory and began his apprenticeship in detective fiction.
Chandler decided to tackle the mystery pulps because he believed that some of them, in spite of their preoccupation with cheap-thrills melodrama, actually possessed an honesty and moral code that appealed to him. Also, he believed that the literary bar was low enough in the pulp fiction trade that he might actually have a good shot of earning even as he learned.
For a full year after his ignoble exit from Dabney Oil, Chandler worked daily at learning the craft of writing detective fiction. At first, he leaned heavily on the styles of Hammett, Gardner and even Ernest Hemingway as models for plot, character, pace and style. It didn’t come easy. That first short story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” running just under 18,000 words, took him five long months to finish. He submitted the story to tough-minded Joseph Shaw, the editor of Black Mask, the leading hard-boiled detective pulp of the day.
Shaw accepted the story and published it in the December 1933 issue. Chandler’s career as a mystery writer had officially begun. For his months of labor, the author received $180, at the standard pulp rate of a penny a word.
For the next six years, Chandler continued his apprenticeship in the pulp magazines, perfecting his craft and building, story by story, the character of his many-named private detective hero (known in various stories as Mallory, Dalmas, Carmady, Gage and Delaguerra, among others).
Though the detective story was a popular form, it did not pay very well. Never a prolific writer, Chandler struggled to earn even a modest living from his short-story sales. In 1938, his three published novelettes earned him a total of $1,275. Often short of cash, Chandler and his wife moved from furnished apartment to furnished apartment throughout Southern California—sometimes two or three times a year. He later recalled: “I never slept in the park but I came damn close to it. I went five days without anything to eat but soup once.”
As the Depression wore on, Chandler continued his education in the pulps. Over the next six years, he sold 10 stories to Black Mask, seven stories to Dime Detective, and one to Detective Fiction Weekly. Chandler learned much from toiling in the pulp jungle, but by 1938 he was ready to move on. In the spring of that year he began writing The Big Sleep, his first novel featuring Philip Marlowe, the romantic and chivalrous private eye with the thoughtful, introspective approach to investigation that would mesmerize audiences in a total of eight novels, all set in steamy and seamy Southern California.
When The Big Sleep was published by Alfred A. Knopf in February 1939, the novel sold 10,000 copies in the United States and paid Chandler $2,000 in royalties. Those figures didn’t make him a best-selling author, but they were remarkably high for a mystery story, particularly for one by a first-time novelist.
Chandler wrote for the pulp magazine market for only a few more years, publishing three stories in 1939, none at all in 1940 and a final one in 1941. For the rest of the decade, Chandler devoted himself to the novel, often cannibalizing plot points, action set-pieces and whole characters from his own short stories. The years during which Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942) and The Lady in the Lake (1943) were published also saw the slow death of the pulp and the rapid rise of the paperback. These small, cheap reprints of hardcover novels were not only in bookstores but in drugstores, newsstands and even railroad stations.
For Chandler, the paperback revolution and the reprinting of his novels resulted in more income and something new: fame. By the beginning of 1945, 750,000 copies of The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely had been sold. Just four years later, a Newsweek report on the crime-fiction business noted that there were more than 3 million copies of Chandler’s mysteries in the hands of readers.
As a writer who saw himself following the path of Dumas, Dickens and Conrad, Chandler devoted his life to the principle that genre writing is writing first and generic second. “My theory,” he once wrote, “was that readers just thought that they cared about nothing but the action; that really although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The thing they really cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.”
Those descriptions included colorful portraits of Los Angeles landmarks and landscapes, like that of downtown’s Angel’s Flight cable car in The High Window: “I parked at the end of the street, where the funicular railway comes struggling up the yellow clay bank from Hill Street, and walked along Court Street to the Florence Apartments.”
The Santa Monica Pier, the San Bernardino Freeway, The Dancer’s Nightclub at La Cienega and Sunset, Beverly Hills (“the best-policed four square miles in California”), The Bradbury Building (renamed The Belfont Building by Chandler and later used as the site of Marlowe’s office in the 1969 James Garner film, Marlowe) all fell under the eyes of Chandler and his private detective. Marlowe’s Hollywood office, Chandler told us, was on the sixth floor (number 615) of “The Cahuenga Building” (in reality, The Security Trust and Savings Bank at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga). Once the tallest building on the Boulevard, the six-story structure erected by John and Donald Parkinson, designers of Bullock’s Wilshire and Santa Monica City Hall, became a high-profile home for Hollywood’s best-known private detective.
“If, as is often said, every city has at least one writer it can claim for a muse,” author and critic David L. Ulin once noted, “Raymond Chandler must be Los Angeles’.” Chandler’s background as both a journalist and a poet made him, said Ulin, “the one Los Angeles writer whose books have as a consistent center—the idea of the city as a living, breathing character–capturing the sights, the smells, the bleak glare of the sunlight, the deceptive smoothness of the surface beneath which nothing is as it seems.”
Ross Macdonald may have put it even better: “Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”
Yet Chandler’s Los Angeles is no City of Angels. It’s an urban swamp filled with darkened back alleys, endless expressways and oppressive architecture. It’s a city of decay and corruption, right down to the foliage. When Chandler, as he does in Farewell, My Lovely, describes “a tough looking palm tree,” it is a tree that could only grow in Los Angeles. When, in the same book, an afternoon breeze makes “the unpruned shoots of last year’s poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall,” lovers of Los Angeles—even those who have never lived here–recognize it as home. And when private eye Philip Marlowe makes his lonely drive from The Hobart Arms on Franklin Avenue to Arthur Gwynn Geiger’s House on Laurel Canyon Drive, as he does in The Big Sleep, we travel with him on atmospheric “mean streets” of a town without pity.
Making a Case for Mystery
Despite the income all those paperbacks generated, their lurid covers advertised Chandler’s stories as nothing more than collections of sex and violence. This kind of image angered and depressed Chandler, who considered the mystery story a valid form of literature. He dove deeper than ever into his drinking, coming up only often enough to produce some of the English language’s greatest crime fiction. In a letter to Lucky Luciano in preparation for an interview (at the suggestion of James Bond creator Ian Fleming), Chandler told the gangster: “I suppose we are both sinners in the sight of the Lord.”
In defiance of the sensational images screaming from the paperback racks that did little to promote Chandler as an important or even talented writer, a small number of Chandler supporters were beginning to argue for his literary value, as was Chandler himself. Writing to his overseas literary agent, Helga Green, Chandler said, “To accept a mediocre form and make literature out of it is something of an accomplishment… We are not always nice people, but essentially we have an ideal that transcends ourselves.”
Chandler was lucky enough to start writing novels at a time when Hollywood, based on the success of John Huston’s adaptation of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, was turning to the hard-boiled detective genre for stories. In 1941, RKO Pictures bought the rights to Farewell, My Lovely for $2,000, using the novel as source material for The Falcon Takes Over. A year later Twentieth Century Fox paid Chandler $3,500 for The High Window. Chandler wasn’t seduced by the attention, however, claiming, “If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood and if they had been any better I should not have come.”
Like many novelists during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Chandler turned to screenwriting to earn the money his books could not. In 1943, he signed on with Paramount Pictures to collaborate with Billy Wilder on a film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. He was paid $10,500, more than his entire earnings to date for any single novel. Chandler continued working for the studios for the next four years, earning increasingly higher salaries.
To stand at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga is to stand in the middle of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. With a little concentration, The City That Is gives way to The City That Was. Soon, words from the author’s essay on detective fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder,” come to mind. It is Chandler’s view of Marlowe, and maybe—finally—of himself.. . .
Seldom had a novelist’s work been so successfully or so frequently translated to the big screen. Chandler’s career as a screenwriter peaked in 1946 and 1947 with the release of director Howard Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep (“The Violence—The Screen’s All-Time Rocker-Shocker!!” screamed the studio advertising), adaptations of The High Window (as The Brasher Doubloon) and The Lady in the Lake, plus Chandler’s Academy Award nomination for The Blue Dahlia (the screenplay for which Chandler crafted under an agreement with Paramount that he be allowed to write at home while drunk). In 1947, he was signed by Universal to create an original screenplay called Playback, but the film was never produced. Chandler tried screenwriting one final time in 1950, adapting the Patricia Highsmith mystery Strangers on a Train for Alfred Hitchcock (“He threw out nearly everything I wrote and brought in another writer.”).
Farewell to Filmland
After that film (the 16th written by or adapted from him), Chandler quit what he called the “Roman Circus” of Hollywood screenwriting to devote his energies to his remaining novels, The Little Sister (1949), The Long Goodbye (1953) and Playback (1958). Hollywood returned his ambivalence. Aside from a truncated television version of The Long Goodbye for the CBS series Climax in 1954, it was nearly 20 years before audiences saw another adaptation of one of Chandler’s books on screen.
Chandler saw no reason to cry: “The motion picture is like a picture of a lady in a half-piece bathing suit. If she wore a few more clothes, you might be intrigued. If she wore no clothes at all, you might be shocked. But the way it is, you are occupied with noticing that her knees are too bony and that her toenails are too large.”
If Hollywood had grown indifferent to Chandler’s work, the same could not be said for his growing legion of readers. As the genre of detective fiction increased in popularity, Chandler was hailed as its most accomplished practitioner. The growth of his reputation in literary circles was based primarily on his first two novels, The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely and on his sixth, The Long Goodbye, but the demand of mystery fans, hungry for the work of a man who had not produced much of it, kept all of his fiction continuously in print.
Chandler once said, “The actual writing is what you live for.” And, indeed, his tight, clean prose, with its rapid rhythm, flawless precision and inspired similes (“He looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”) seemed the perfect conveyance for the detective story that he, more than anyone else, had elevated from its pulpy roots. The power of Chandler’s language and the emotion of his characters resulted in stories driven by mood and soaked in atmosphere, revealing and perhaps even explaining the darker side of human nature. Said poet W.H. Auden: “Mr. Chandler is interested in writing not detective stories but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful, but extremely depressing books should be read and judged not as escape literature, but as works of art.”
The end of Chandler’s own story reveals a personal life filled with difficulties, disappointments and disasters. His epic bouts of heavy drinking cost him his health, his lifestyle, his professional and personal relationships—and even his talent. Eventually, he wrote virtually nothing but letters.
Chandler suffered from depression, once saying that he could no longer look out at the Pacific Ocean because it had too much water and too many men had drowned in it. And he was a victim of self-loathing. Although he agreed to become the president of the Mystery Writers of America, he threw his ballot out because he could not face the prospect of voting for himself.
When his wife Cissy died of fibrosis of the lungs in December 1954, Chandler’s sense of loss turned from devastation to desperation. One boozy night, he loaded a .38 revolver, walked into his bathroom and fired twice. He missed both times. When the police arrived, they found him on the shower floor in the midst of a third attempt. He was taken to a sanitarium. When the news of his botched suicide made headlines, letters of support poured in from all over the country. Chandler dismissed the sentiments as silly.
Finally, in 1959, Chandler was hospitalized for pneumonia, his system weakened by years of alcohol abuse. He died alone at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla on March 26, just three days before the premiere of Philip Marlowe, a new ABC television series based on his most famous character.
Chandler’s funeral was attended by only 17 people. They included local acquaintances who hadn’t known him well enough to be called friends, representatives of the local Mystery Writers chapter and a devoted collector of first-edition mysteries.
Yet 70 years after penning his first Los Angeles crime tale, Raymond Chandler lives on. His seven novels and 25 short stories are still in print and readily available, as are the movies and television shows made from those works. And Chandler lives as well at the very place where Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe once hung his hat, coat and gun.
On August 5, 1994, in honor of the first writer to chronicle Los Angeles and all its vivid eccentricities, the city of Los Angeles designated a familiar Hollywood street corner as a Historic Cultural Monument. Raymond Chandler Square now occupies the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga boulevards, the site of Marlowe’s office. Journalist Jess Bravin, who first approached the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission with the idea of the tribute, said then: “Of all the artists of the 20th century, perhaps no one shaped the image of Los Angeles more than did Raymond Chandler. His novels, which featured private detective Philip Marlowe, portrayed this city and its people with a depth and texture that both inspires and chills each generation of readers. His style, terse and metaphoric, gritty yet romantic, bridged the worlds of rich and poor, of losers and dreamers, of ‘popular novels’ and literary art.”
To stand at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga is to stand in the middle of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. With a little concentration, The City That Is gives way to The City That Was. Soon, words from the author’s essay on detective fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder,” come to mind. It is Chandler’s view of Marlowe, and maybe—finally—of himself:
“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”∎
by Raymond Chandler
The Big Sleep. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939.
Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.
The High Window. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1942.
The Lady in the Lake. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943.
The Little Sister. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.
The Long Goodbye. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.
Playback. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958.
Short Stories & Anthologies
“Blackmailers Don’t Shoot.” Black Mask. December, 1933.
The Simple Art of Murder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
Trouble Is My Business. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
Raymond Chandler Speaking. Ed. Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
Collected Stories (Everyman’s Library). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
on Raymond Chandler
Baker, Robert A. and Niestzel, Michael T. Private Eyes: 101 Knights. Bowling Green: Popular, 1985.
Clark, Al. Raymond Chandler in Hollywood. New York: Proteus, 1982.
Geherin, David. The American Private Eye. New York: Ungar, 1985.
Goulart, Ron. The Dime Detectives. New York: Mysterious, 1988.
Luhr, William. Raymond Chandler and Film. New York: Ungar, 1982.
Nolan, William F. The Black Mask Boys. New York: Mysterious, 1985.
O’Brien, Geoffrey. Hardboiled America. New York: Van Nostrand Renhold, 1981.
Ward, Elizabeth and Silver, Alain. Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Woodstock: Overlook, 1987.
Wolfe, Peter. Something More Than Night. Bowling Green: Popular, 1985.
This article originally appeared in the SEPTEMBER 8, 2017 issue of Black Mask Magazine.
You can find the history of Black Mask HERE.