A gumshoe's tour of Los Angeles
Raymond Chandler buffs take a bus ride through L.A., visiting the dark city of the late author's crime novels.
The engine of the giant tour bus idles loudly, and its plush-blue interior vibrates like a clothes washer stuck on "agitate." About 50 riders – age 30-something to 70-something – occupy high-back seats, staring forward like a kennel of Dobermans eyeing a mailman's calves. A frumpy matron makes her way down the carpeted aisle and tries to break the air of restlessness with an offhand remark.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean," she says, speaking to no one in particular.
It is a description of 1940s Los Angeles from one of its greatest writers – Raymond Chandler – straight out of her dog-eared copy of "The Simple Art of Murder," protruding from her equally dog-eared purse.
All who hear her know the line. The bus is full of mystery-loving, novel-toting, passage-quoting noir junkies. Each has plunked down $55 to be told stuff about the genre's biggest icon, and the city's preeminent literary chronicler.
In nearly three dozen short stories and seven novels – all seven made into movies – Chandler half-chronicled and half-invented a black-and-white dreamscape of the dark side of Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s. And he immortalized a hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, to stalk the city's physical and moral sprawl to solve murders and seek larger truths.
Now, 70 years later, this bus load of gum-shoe wannabes seems taken with the idea of trying to uncover – or recover – whatever is left of Chandler's mean streets. Streets lined with neon-lit, art deco, and Gothic buildings. Neighborhoods filled with, as only Chandler could put it, "crooks on the lam," "haggard landladies," and "people who look like nothing in particular and know it."
"How about this," says a voice from across the bus aisle. "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."
It is another Chandler line being quoted from memory – this time from his novel "Red Wind." The man finishes: "On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks ... Anything can happen."
And so it goes for an afternoon: dueling quotations, formal readings, and visits to real locales that are themselves amalgams of the real and imagined – places augmented or diminished by Chandler to fit the needs of his stories, novels, and screenplays: the Bullocks Wilshire department store, where Marlowe meets Agnes Lozelle on a cold, rainy night in "The Big Sleep;" the Solana Apartments in Hollywood, said to be the model for where Velma shoots Moose Malloy in "Farewell, My Lovely."
The Saturday crime tour has a lofty goal: to become a rolling homage to both the author and the city that he loved, then hated, and immortalized in his writings.
Chandler's own route to creating a famous fictionalized private dick was circuitous. Born in Chicago in 1888, he tried journalism as a young man, worked several odd jobs including stringing tennis rackets and picking fruit, became a platoon leader in World War I, and then wound up as an executive with an L.A.-based oil company. At age 45, he started teaching himself to write pulp fiction, mimicking such writers as Earl Stanley Gardner for mystery magazines. His first novel, "The Big Sleep," was published in 1939. William Faulkner wrote the screenplay for the movie version of the book in 1945, and Chandler was nominated for an Oscar for his own screenplay for Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity."
Chandler's classification as a mystery writer – and only an L.A. mystery writer at that – undoubtedly diminished his place in the world of serious literature. But some think that's unfair.
"Chandler is an evangelist for the transformative power of literature ... just the prose itself will get under your skin and not leave you alone," says David Kipen, director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts. He suggests that Chandler may have more readers today than Nobel Prize winner Faulkner and has "probably turned more readers into writers than Faulkner ever did."
One of his most ardent devotees is Richard Schaves, a boyish man with thick brown hair who is holding a mike at the front of the bus. Mr. Schaves created the crime tour, called "In a Lonely Place: Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles." He grew up in the city, devouring all of Chandler's books as a teenager. Schaves is also an alumnus of two of Chandler's favorite L.A. milieus – the public school system and the city's seedy underworld (courtesy of a racketeering uncle and grandfather).
Yet all this immersion in Marlowe's pistol-whipped world might have just remained a personal passion for Schaves if it hadn't been for his wife. Several years ago, Kim Cooper began deconstructing what is considered a seminal year in Los Angeles history, 1947. Her daily blogs about the lurid crimes of that year – including the infamous Black Dahlia murder, still unsolved – led to a series of crime-scene bus tours. Schaves realized that 1947 came in the middle of Chandler's most prolific decade of writing: 1943-53.
"It was only a matter of time until a Chandler tour became indispensable to understanding this key decade in L.A. history," says Schaves.
As the bus moves through traffic, Chandler's old haunts come to life – the county morgues and police drunk tanks, the aging hotels – all the places where he staged his fictional crime scenes. At each stop, the tour is augmented by video clips, oral history lessons, and Chandler readings.
"An old man sat inside [an open grilled elevator], slack jawed and watery-eyed on a piece of folded burlap on top of a wooden stool," says Kelly Kuvo, Schave's tour assistant, reading from "The High Window." "He looked as if he had been sitting there since the Civil War and had come out of that badly."
By tour's end, the once Doberman-focused patrons are as docile as basset hounds and, with some exceptions, thrilled with the trip. "The tour did a fabulous job of tying the events of Chandler's life into the material that subsequently appeared in his novels," says Jerry Joseph, who took his wife on the tour for her birthday.
Schoolteacher Steve Oster has passed places like the Mayfair Hotel hundreds of times without knowing that Chandler lived there. "I was struck by the number of diverse locales, from glamorous Hollywood homes to skid row, that were used in Chandler's books and movies," he says.
Michael Beckelhimer, a documentary filmmaker, enjoys Chandler's noir L.A. He's "created this whole vision of a black-and-white, rainy city," he says. "I mean you really have to draw the blinds to read his books or watch his movies."
It's clear from the tour how much L.A. has – and hasn't – changed in the 50 years since Chandler's death. The riders are fascinated with the layers of Chandler-era L.A. still evident under the smudge of history: the old hotel signs, the art deco lobbies with period features and furnishings. As the fading dusk steals color and form from the L.A. skyline, the echoes of Chandler's past are put to rest, but the spirit of Marlowe lives on in his modern counterparts.
"The detective in this kind of story must be ... the hero, he is everything ..." writes Chandler, finishing his "mean streets" quote in "The Simple Art of Murder." "The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth."