By John Hall
“Chandler wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”
This is the quotation that you’ll usually find on paperback reprints of the works of Raymond Chandler. The author of the quotation is Ross Macdonald, who, in his own novels and stories, performed a similar service for Southern California, in general, particularly his hometown, Santa Barbara.
In fact, how we view certain cities and their environs is very often shaped by literature, sometimes by the works of a single author.
For me, for example, my love affair with Los Angeles began when I was a Dallas teenager seeing L.A. mostly in the movies.
However, avid reader of mystery/detective fiction that I already was at the time, it was Chandler’s novels that really defined this city for me.
Well, OK, add in one more element: Jack Webb’s long-running radio and television series “Dragnet.” The words of the introduction echo among my little gray cells to this day: “This is the city, Los Angeles, California…”
And so many years later, at Antelope Valley College, I even developed and taught a course in detective fiction and my colleague John Toth and I, along with my own femme fatale, Janice, conducted annual bus tours into Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles.
Actually, I got started down this road of thought after reading a recently published collection of Dashiell Hammett’s short stories from the early pulp magazines, particularly the unequaled Black Mask.
Coincidentally, at the same time, I received an early birthday gift from our longtime friend, Mary Margaret McGuire, who retired from the college and is living the good life with her husband, Larry, up the coast in San Simeon. Opening the package, I discovered that she still knows my interests well — she had sent me a collection of Hammett’s novels.
Hammett, of course, in a single novel, “The Maltese Falcon,” (1930) laid a definitive hand on the fabled city of San Francisco. The novel, perhaps the best of the American hardboiled works from that early “golden age,” also generated the 1941 film said by many to be the best mystery/detective film to ever come out of Hollywood.
The novel is so much a part of San Francisco that you can take a “Maltese Falcon” tour of the city, dine at Hammett’s and Sam Spade’s favorite eatery, John’s Grill, in Union Square, stay at the hotel where Kasper Gutman engineered his machinations and stand in the exact spot where Brigid O’Shaughnessy pumped a .455-Webley slug into Miles Archer (oops, a bit of a spoiler there for those who haven’t read the novel or seen the movie).
Getting back to Los Angeles, however, I would beg to differ with that assessment of “The Maltese Falcon” as the best mystery/detective film. Two L.A.-set “neo-noir” films, “L.A. Confidential” (1997) based on James Ellroy’s 1990 novel and “Chinatown” (1974) are in a safe place at the top of my list.
And I would have to include the 1953 Robert Aldrich highly acclaimed and influential adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s 1952 novel “Kiss Me, Deadly,” a film that transferred the action from Spillane’s New York to Los Angeles.
Oh, another of Spillane’s novels, “My Gun Is Quick” (1950) was also filmed in L.A. The film, however, is rather humdrum, except for providing an excellent on-location tour through the L. A. of 1957, the year before I first set foot on Chandler’s “mean streets.”
I began with a Ross Macdonald quote, I’ll add another, from 1950, that seems appropriate now: “There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.”
But the final words belong to Chandler, who, disillusioned with L.A., moved to La Jolla in 1946. He described Los Angeles in 1953 as “A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.”