APRIL 17, 2021
IF YOU’RE EVER heading south down the Interstate 5 in high summer, when the temperature is over 100 and the Southern California hillsides look and smell like tinder, consider turning off the freeway at some point and winding your way through the canyons to the sea. Somewhere past Laguna Niguel, the road turns into the Pacific Coast Highway, and then a little to the left of that is the town of Dana Point. It’s a beautiful place, with a downtown full of colored lanterns, a charming little yacht harbor, and a statue of its namesake, the writer Richard Henry Dana Jr., overlooking a spectacular golden beach. But as romantic as it was there when I visited last summer, all I could think about was murder.
This is because I was under the sway of Raymond Chandler. His prose had been coloring my world for some time, thanks to a list I’d seen online of titles for short stories that Chandler had thought of, but never used. They were clever and evocative — “Law Is Where You Buy It,” “Twenty Minutes’ Sleep,” “Fiction Is for Fools” — and I soon started a blog for my friends to create and contribute stories and songs using Chandler’s unused titles. I called it the Raymond Chandler Project. I was excited to receive original works from noted writers and songwriters like Greil Marcus, Robyn Hitchcock, Peter Holsapple, and Amy Rigby, but I also had some unexpected contributors: a software engineer, a business analyst, a kindergarten teacher, a stay-at-home dad, a chemist, two children who were car camping in France, my (ex-)mother-in-law.
Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, people had time on their hands and stories to tell. I wasn’t teaching for the summer, which meant I had time to spare, too. So, for a couple of months, all I did was work on the Raymond Chandler Project, curating entries and writing some of my own.
My first story, titled “Rigadoo,” was about the death of a water ballerina who performed nightly in a cheesy hotel’s swimming pool. Then I wrote “Stop Screaming, It’s Me,” which I set in the town of Locke, a ghost town on the California Delta that used to be the hub of Chinese brothels and opium dens. It took me a while to figure out a story for “Thunder Bug,” until I visited Dana Point and stood on the overlook looking down on the harbor, where I envisioned a murder that had occurred on a tiny sailboat with that titular name. Finally, I wrote one called “They Only Murdered Him Once,” about a movie star who throws her director over a Point Lobos cliff.
In my travels of 2020, I started to see murder mysteries in every corner of California I visited. This was in part because I was locked down in the state, perhaps activating my imagination. But it was also because the world we were living in has been looking more and more like one big crime scene. I used to — perhaps naïvely — think that the civic corruption that fueled Chandler’s plots was a literary device, but I don’t think that anymore. Crooked cops who stomp on the innocent; slimy lawyers with black hair dye running down their sweaty faces; grotesque hoteliers paying hush money to prostitutes, hiring their weasel-faced sons-in-law, demonstrably in love with their beautiful blonde daughters — it was shocking how contemporary Chandler’s oeuvre now felt. For myself and many other contributors, revisiting his ideas about America and corruption, not as a literary motif but as part of the fabric of our very lives, was a strange comfort in this bitter year.
As a coping technique, the project allowed for all kinds of approaches. Some contributors — like cultural critic Greil Marcus, who wrote a hard-boiled story set in the 1940s for the title “Here It Is Saturday,” or my brother, who mashed up Chandler with Dashiell Hammett for “A Night in the Icebox” — were faithful to the genre. (My brother’s titular “icebox” is San Francisco in the summertime, where Philip Marlowe has stupidly arrived without a proper overcoat.) Other contributors — especially women — borrowed Chandler’s imagery and language to tell their own stories, inserting their perspective into tales like “Between Two Liars” and “My Best to the Bride” and turning the genre on its head. One story called “Return From Ruin” chronicles a woman who murders her husband because, the contributor told me, she sometimes felt like murdering her own.
Finally, there were stories inspired by the news. The lawyer who embezzles to keep up with his fame-seeking housewife of Beverly Hills; a villain loosely based on Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli; a poem about Daphne Caruana Galizia, the investigative journalist who was recently murdered in Malta. The final line of the Caruana Galizia poem, which also caps the project, sums up so much of what we’ve all been forced to think about for the last four years: “Why do people refrain from corruption?”
By mid-2020, the answer was clear: they don’t. In the 80 years since Raymond Chandler first characterized Los Angeles as a city of corruption — moral, political, and otherwise — not much has changed. Just south of the city lies Orange County, where wealth and whiteness are densely concentrated. During my visit to Dana Point last summer, the sheer amount of natural resources and cheap labor that had gone into the region began to weigh heavily on my mind. All those marble countertops. All those kitchen islands. The ironwork. The stucco. The balustrades. The infinity swimming pools. The SUVs in all the four-car garages, guarded at all times not by Chandler’s oversexed henchmen but by electronic systems that bleep all night long in a far more grating key. Trump banners fluttered off so many balconies.
Places like Laguna Niguel are a far cry from Raymond Chandler’s post-Prohibition, post–Great Depression era settings, filled with grifters and gangsters and gun molls. But there is some commonality between the two: between the visible transgressions of American police and the long grift of the then–United States president and his flunkies, it’s no wonder so many of us had such an easy time writing themselves into Chandler’s story world.
Creating the Raymond Chandler Project inspired me to reread Chandler, which I hadn’t done since college. At the time, I loved his stories for their evocative language and for the nobility of the narrator — a man who, confronting the mean streets of the city, “is neither tarnished, nor afraid.” Chandler’s work is still imbued with the sense that justice is a lonesome pursuit, but in my recent rereadings I was struck by other aspects, like the alcoholism, the racism, the sexism, the kink. No one goes for more than a minute without taking a swig, African Americans are routinely referred to as dinges and worse, and women characters seldom get beyond being called “the red head” or “the blonde.” It is all very much a man’s world, as in this hilarious, yet typical, passage from the story “Pearls Are a Nuisance”:
At five o’clock that afternoon I awoke from slumber and found that I was lying on my bed in my apartment in the Chateau Moraine, on Franklin Avenue near Ivar Street, in Hollywood. I turned my head, which ached, and saw that Henry Eichelberger was lying beside me in his undershirt and trousers. I then perceived that I also was as lightly attired. On the table near by there stood an almost full bottle of Old Plantation rye whiskey, the full quart size, and on the floor lay an entirely empty bottle of the same excellent brand. There were garments lying here and there on the floor, and a cigarette had burned a hole in the brocaded arm of one of my easy chairs.
I felt myself over carefully. My stomach was stiff and sore and my jaw seemed a little swollen on one side. Otherwise I was none the worse for wear.
There are many things about Chandler’s work that now fall far short of ideal, but the prose itself still undeniably soars, redolent of anger, disappointment, and dread. “The smell of sage drifted up from a canyon and made me think of a dead man and moonless sky,” he writes in Farewell, My Lovely (1940).
Straggly stucco houses were moulded flat to the side of the hill, like bas-reliefs. Then there were no more houses, just the still dark foothills with an early star or two above them, and the concrete ribbon of road and a sheer drop on one side into a tangle of scrub oak and manzanita where sometimes you can hear the call of the quails if you stop and keep still and wait. On the other side of the road was a raw clay bank at the edge of which a few unbeatable wild flowers hung on like naughty children than won’t go to bed.
Reading that now, I can see how much it still colors my youthful impression of what Los Angeles was like in his day; and I am not the only one.
What, pray tell, is the “warm smell of colitis / rising up through the air” that perfumes the patio of the Hotel California, if not an only slightly druggier take on Chandler’s jacaranda-covered gambling parlors, with Jaguars in the parking lot? Redondo Beach. Ventura Highway. Laurel Canyon. Fountain and Fairfax. As the writer Robert B. Parker once said, “Chandler did not, as is often alleged, capture Los Angeles. He invented it.” Of course, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles is far from what the region looks like now. Truth be told, I have always had to put some work in to find Chandler’s version, since my own experience of Los Angeles looks more like Los Feliz and Silver Lake and Echo Park than Bel Air and El Segundo. I love his vision, but I wonder sometimes if the Los Angeles of my heart would have felt any different if he hadn’t written about it in exactly the way that he did. There have, after all, always been many different versions of Los Angeles; the truth is that one’s experience of it is more dependent on race, class, and immigration status than on one’s reading choices. In recent years, the violence of those other experiences has become more visible, but the civic squalor he describes in his novels has always been there and always will be: thinking of his messed-up world as some kind of romanticized fictional conceit has only been possible from a position of privilege. As much as one loves to read (and write like) Raymond Chandler, I look forward to being able to think about his world as if it were fiction again, rather than, as one of the project’s contributors put it, a user’s manual.