Raymond Chandler Nails So. CA.


Farewell My Lovely book cover
Original 1943 paper back cover

Destination: Los Angeles, California

Book: Farewell My Lovely (1939) by Raymond Chandler

I had not read the hard boiled detective stories for quite a while, and I had forgotten what fun Raymond Chandler can be.  I had also forgotten how openly racist and sexist was the society that he wrote about.

Some people will take offense at the terms his characters use and the assumptions they make about–for example–African Americans, American Indians, Japanese gardeners and blond millionairesses.

Although most people still accept those sexist descriptions of blonds– “Dames lie about anything. Just for practice,” says an L.A. cop– the other prejudices are out of bounds these days.

If the language upsets you, read about P.I. Philip Marlowe’s adventures in a bowdlerized edition–there are plenty–instead of the Library of America edition that I read. Me, I take this novel as an anthropology lesson.  It reflects the way a certain class of people in L.A. thought and talked in 1939.

Interestingly, detective Philip Marlowe talks in standard English and seems to know his way around classic literature.  If he had not wound up as a tough private eye–a shamus–a dick–he would fit nicely behind a podium at a small liberal arts college.

I am drawn to Chandler more by the language than the twisty plots.  There are plenty of 72-year-old slang words that I don’t understand, but Marlowe/Chandler’s quips keep me laughing.

Tarantula, without cake

Chandler excels at drawing word portraits. Here’s part of his first page description of a key character in Farewell My Lovely, Moose Malloy, who “..looked about as inconspicious as a tarantula on a piece of angel food.”

(Chandler likes to use negative metaphors. Later in the story he describes a house as not very impressive. No bigger than Buckingham Palace and with fewer windows than the Chrysler Building. For more about his use of metaphors, and a plot summary of Farewell My Lovely, see this article by one of Chandler’s biographers.)

He goes on about Moose Malloy:

“He was a big man, but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck…” “His skin was pale and he needed a shave.  He would always need a shave.  He had curly black hair and heavy eyebrows that almost met over his thick nose. His ears were small and neat for a man of that size and his eyes had a shine close to tears that gray eyes often seem to have.”

Not only has Chandler presented a case study in how to write a description, he has accomplished a secondary aim by letting us see how observant Phillip Marlowe is.  Neither Chandler nor Marlowe miss a trick.  And this is just the first page.

Once you have read Chandler, you will have a sense of deja vu when you take a road trip to Los Angeles. Not the freeways, but the streets and neighborhoods beneath and around the network of high speed. Piling up details of place, Chandler’s usually clipped sentences become an urban sprawl leading us into the heart of the city and its suburbs. You’ll have to read those for yourself, because one paragraph would use up this entire post.

Book Darts
Handy for marking your favorite lines

Here are a few more choice bits I marked with my Book Darts (a discovery my books, my library and I are most grateful for. And they are not paying me to say that):

She fell softly across my lap and I bent down over her face and began to browse on it.

A run-down room:

A couple of frayed lamps with once gaudy shades that were now as gray as superannuated streetwalkers.

And in a very different house:

It was the kind of a room where people sit with their feet in their lap and sip absinthe through lumps of sugar and talk with high affected voices and sometimes just squeak.

Hand GunMarlowe’s erudition shows when he gets a call from a potential client and the detective asks if the job is honest:

The voice grew icicles. “I should not have called you, if it were not.'” [On hearing that, Marlowe thinks] Harvard boy. Nice use of the subjunctive mood. The end of my foot itched but my bank account was still trying to crawl under a duck.

Take heart, baby boomers, although Chandler wrote for a living most of his life, and cranked out dozens and dozens of pulp magazine mysteries, Farewell My Lovely was his first novel and he was 50 years old when it was published.

Hollywood liked Chandler, who along with Dashiell Hammett fueled the film noir explosion in the 40s and 50s.  I watched the remake of Farewell My Lovely (1974)starring Robert Mitchum with a brief appearance by a young studly Sylvester Stallone. I’m here to warn you. Don’t bother. Mitchum should have been right for the role, but the script is so bad that he can’t escape sinking with the rest. The credits and the background music are attractive and it’s downhill from there on, mostly because the movie dropped not just scenes, but key intentions and key characters from Chandler’s novel.

Just one example. A phony psychic in the film (male) becomes a tough dyke Madame in the film–probably to give the film makers a chance to have a lot of full frontal nudity parading around. And although they don’t shy away form using “shine” and the more offensive “n” word to refer to blacks, the movie changes the hilarious Hollywood Indian character of the novel into…a cowboy. Huh?? And Marlowe doesn’t even figure out the crime. Sorry, that’s three examples, but I could talk forever about how bad this movie is. So I’d better move on and go look for a copy of the 1944 version starring Dick Powell and called Murder My Sweet. Synopses seem to indicate it sticks closer to the novel.

Trivia: William Faulkner adapted Chandler’s The Big Sleep for the screen, and allegedly didn’t understand the novel. It was saved by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

I wish I were in L.A. April 23. I’d take the Esotouric Tour of Raymond Chandler’s L.A. I keep getting the company emails and they have a brilliant collection of off beat bus tours. (And they are not paying me to say that. Darn!)

By the way, Roger Ebert really, really liked the Mitchum movie, as did the general run of the mill reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes.  I have the feeling none of them had read Chandler.

And I should mention that Kerry Dexter of Music Road, my faithful companion on this road trip has popped a CD of a singer with bluegrass roots— who uses a bit of jazz and Celtic music as well–into the player. I’m sure its nice, but I’ll be ejecting it when Kerry stops for a burger. I’d prefer Cool Jazz for my Noir mood L.A.

Have detective novels and film noir shaped your view of L.A.? Have you seen or read Farewell My Lovely?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

13 thoughts on “Raymond Chandler Nails So. CA.

  1. It is jarring to be thrilled with Chandler and then read utterly false claims such as men who love other men are never really strong: “I backstepped fast enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one,but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.” (From “The Big Sleep,” Chapter 17.) When you are a man who has loved and lived with another man for decades, you come to understand how laughably untrue this is. It is, after all, merely an extension of the same idea about women. Many men have made the mistake of completely underestimating the power, strength, and intelligence of women. If Chandler did so with women, he did it to men who love other men for the same reasons.

  2. Period pieces are fascinating to read because of the very language choices you were talking about. Whenever I come across a phrase, word choice or thought that throws me off and in a contemporary setting have me all geared up for a battle, I have to wonder about not only the context of the times, but the cadence as well. Speech changes in speed and flow and I wonder if the way I imagine the conversation taking place would be at all comparable to how it actually might and what understanding that might bring.

    1. I’m glad we agree on this, Laura. I’ve always thought this is the biggest challenge for writers of historical fiction. If they actually COULD write exactly as people spoke in say, the Middle Ages, we would probably find it unreadable. However when we can find literature contemporary to the near past, we can hear the world of our parents or grandparents.

  3. I’ve read all of Chandler’s novels (and short stories) at least twice. I love Fairwell My Lovely. I think he is a brilliant writer. I’m so jealous of anyone who hasn’t read his stuff — they have something so wonderful to look forward to. Interesting, I don’t find Chandler’s books sexist in a way that irks me. Though of course you are right, those were sexist, racist times (have things really gotten better? Sometimes I wonder.)

  4. Vera,
    I know you like cool jazz as your soundtrack for LA — and I’d still suggest Alison Brown, especially her album called Quartet, as well as several tracks on The Company You Keep, the cd and dvd I’ve added in for our soundtrack for this part of the road trip. I didn’t forget your jazz interests — Brown is a fine jazz player and composer as well as creating good work in bluegrass.
    and one thing bluegrass and jazz have much in common: improvisation. take a listen when you have the chance.

  5. I have never read Chandler. It is always amazing to read some of these books and see some of the prejudices which were so rampant and accepted. Yet, despite all that- there are good story lines, plots and twists. Not sure though if I would want to read any coz I’m still making my way through a stack of books!

  6. Your noir article hit me like a centerfire cartridge from a Smith $ Wesson .38 Police Special. Them mugs really knew how to
    fling a simile. Sam Spade: “The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter.” For another look at noir L.A. see “Mildred Pierce” (1945) with Joan Crawford. In theme James M. Cain was a darker writer than Chandler or Hammett and decorated his cynical prose with fewer similes. You can still see “Mildred’s Place” near Malibu today. TB

    1. You’re a braver writer than I, to wade into the morass of metaphors and slinky similes. I’ll have to follow the tracks you laid down here to other noir.

  7. It’s so nice to read something written by someone who is basically in love with words. I’m personally not a fan of Chandler and find his prose not the only outdated thing about him, but different genre preferences are natural.

    1. Jennifer: Guess I’m just an old fashioned gal. But of course Chandler is outdated. So are the calicos worn by pioneer women. He was a pioneer in his genre. Cop fiction has evolved into twenty versions of CSI and fun detectives like Monk, but I like the detectives with STYLE. I was amazed in researching this to learn how literary Chandler’s references are when you delve into them..

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