'He was a grey man, all grey, except
for his polished black shoes and two scarlet diamonds in his grey
satin tie that looked like the diamonds on roulette layouts. His
shirt was grey and his double-breasted suit of soft, beautifully-cut
flannel. Seeing Carmen he took a grey hat off and his hair underneath it
was grey and as fine as if it had been sifted through gauze. His
thick grey eyebrows had that indefinable sporty look.
He had a long
chin, a nose with a hook to it, thoughtful grey eyes that had a
slanted look because the fold of skin over his upper lid came down
over the corner of the lid itself. He stood there politely, one
hand touching the door at his back, the other holding the grey hat
and flapping it gently against his thigh. He looked hard, not the
hardness of the tough guy. More like the hardness of a well-weathered
horseman. But he was no horseman. He was Eddie Mars'.
X111 - The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler 1939
It is all Raymond
Chandler's fault anyway. I could have been happy with anything, but at an early age I discovered
Chandlerville - Los Angeles of the late thirties and forties and it
didn't let go. I looked about me in my Victorian industrial town of Grimsby
and it didn't take much imagination to know that no story ever worth
telling would happen here and it if did, well who the hell cared. No
one. Grimsby has a curious elegance but no boulevard of swayng palm trees grace Cleethorpes beachfront and you'd really have to use a lot of imagination to see girls in bikinis blading on the seawalk rather than the massed ranks of blue rinsed grannies hudddled together for warmth as they shuffle down to the bingo.
No Grimsby detective was going to beat down the door of a glamorous
society dame in my town and show her dirty pictures and demand money.
(There would need to be 'society' for a start). Sure crime happened, murders
happened, there were rich and poor, but Grimsby was, well Grimsby and
there is nothing romantic, nothing exciting, nothing but the void and
stench of the Pyewipe factory that soaked the town in an acrid smell
that dissolved the paint off cars and altered the genetic make-up of
subsequent generations, including mine. (The present factory may be smell free but certainly wasn't when I was a kid).
One heard about corruption in the council, scandals about whose parents
were sleeping with who and once I knew someone who had shot their husband
dead, but it wasn't Los Angeles and therefore it didn't count.
No one I ever saw came close to looking like a Hollywood starlet (except
maybe Anne S) and British cops didn't flash guns and if there
was such a thing as a Private Eye, he'd turn out to be as exciting as
the man from the council. I tried Agatha Christie. Poirot was amusing, but
her murders were all so English, her writing so damn polite. Lord Peter
Whimsy was all very well and the whole basket of British Crime fiction,
though popular, left me cold.
Chandler was the real thing and after him, Elmore Leonard. They knew
the criminal world and their words flowed. Chandler was literary, his
characters were full of values, mistaken or otherwise. These people
were born to be in movies and the movies loved them. Chandler was nominated
for two oscars 'The Blue Dahlia'; and 'Double Indemnity';
still timeless film classics.
me the money'. The motor of the grey Plymouth throbbed under her voice
and the rain pounded above it. The violet light at the top of the Bullocks
green-tinged tower was far above us, serene and withdrawn from the dark,
dripping city. Her black-gloved hand reached out and I put the bills
in it. She bent over to count them under the dim light of the dash.
A bag clicked open, clicked shut. She let a spent breath die on her
lips. She leant towards me. 'Leaving copper. I'm on my way. This is
a get-away stake and God how I need it'.
- Raymond Chandler
Chandlerville is full of corrupt women, dishonourable thieves and remorseful
killers, some who couldn't care either way. At the heart of it is a
man, a detective who has seen all and never really surprised by anything.
He doesn't get rich, he is honest despite himself and he rarely gets
the girl, because he knows they are only using him to get what they
want. Poor people don't really figure because poor people can't afford
even him and their crimes are more passionate, police fodder 'the poor
always murder those closest to them'. Rich crimes involve complex tales,
terrible lies and family secrets. 'Farewell my Lovely'; and 'The
Long-Goodbye' are the best of his work in my own opinion, trading
on forgotten promises, weaknesses and betrayals. At the core is Philip
Marlowe, ex-cop, cynical, laconic and forever associated whether he
liked it or not with Humphrey Bogart rather than Robert Mitcham.
I loved the cars. Exotic names like De Soto, Packard, Cord, Studebaker,
all gone now, and always Marlowes battered Plymouth Coupé. The
places too. I love the empty spaces, the empty roads and the long drive
to the black and white ocean where, quite often the bodies drifted out
to sea. Above all, California was romantic, if a little harsh and if
I could have run away from school to live there, I would have.
Gould's Marlowe does a good cynical 70's laconic private eye in
his update of The Long Goodbye (1973) and it is one of Robert
Altman's best movies capturing a perfect moment in the early seventies.)
We like Marlowe because he knows he's been played for a sucker by
society and the cops and yet he doggedly closes in, with or without
help, sometimes for a scrap of justice or personal satisfaction.
He belongs to world that has completely vanished, along with Chandler,
who was shaped by the times he grew up in.
This doesn't matter.
I just always wish I could have been there, in the LA of the late 30's and
somehow been part of the scene. Chandler was a boozer, married to an
older woman, lived in Santa Barbara, his life was complicated but unlike
some, I prefer to judge a man by his books (than his life) and his books
still stand as the best and an inspiration for writing crime.
||Polanski's Chinatown (1971) is the closest to a contemporary vision
of Chandler's L.A. Jack Nicholson gives the performance of his
life as Jake Gittings, the Marlowe-esqe character. It is a wonderful
work and a brilliant insight into the power plays in a city undergoing
huge growing pains. Even better to realise that it was based on real
scandals in the water and power business. Chinatown embodies all that is best about Film Noir and gorws in stature with the years. The attention to detail and it isn't overwhelmed by the frenetic pace current cinema demands. Much of what we see here is being lost to developers sadly.
Los Angeles was, for me,
a symbol for a whole American way of life and it only dawned on
me slowly, that just as I had discovered it, it had vanished, subsumed
by the tacky sixties and the dreadful seventies.
still there, I checked. I first got there in '71. Flew from New York
on a TWA Jumbo, the only passenger. Incredible, but true. Even dated
one of the stewardesses for a while. The fare was $350 - doesn't seem
so much now, but was back then. Found everything just as I imagined.
Stayed in the Canyon, lived in a shack by Venice beach, met the weirdest
people ever. Worked as a jester, an extra, wrote scripts, but never
cracked it. Ten years later a friend and I were held up at gunpoint
and robbed of everything we had. But that's L.A., you have to expect
the unexpected. Had to dial 911 with the tip of my tongue on a dial
phone. Nothing is more terrifying than a SWAT team arriving with guns
bristling. They looked disappointed they had no one to kill. Even met
a jaded PI in Santa Monica- but it was a dame and she chain smoked.
No style. Even though LA and
Hollywood has undergone a huge makeover in the late nineties, the old
buildings are everywhere, you can find places and signs that Chandler
wrote about. But there are crowds now, the empty spaces and deserted
canyons are gone, infilled with homes, cars, every space covered with
something, usually tacky. Of course crime still goes on, but it is so
relentless, there are so many murders and overdoses and scandals, nothing
suprises us. Millions have gone there to live the dream, to find it
is just that, a smog filled dream and California is bankrupt. Elmore Leonard is our guru now and
his brilliantly funny work, such as in 'Get Shorty' followed in
Chandler's footsteps with wacky, contemporary insights into all these
people trying for the main chance, taking any shortcuts they can. For
the moment though, I'm sticking with Chandler and his dialogue:
© Sam North (whose first crime novel '209 Thriller
Road' St Martin's Press NY.1980 is available at a
got raging in an instant. 'Don't call me sister, you cheap gumshoe!'
'Then don't call me buster, you very expensive secretary. What are you
doing tonight? And don't tell me you're going out with four sailors
The skin around her eyes turned whiter. Her hand crisped in a claw around
a paperweight. She just didn't heave it at me. 'You son of a bitch!'
she said somewhat pointedly. Then she flipped a switch and her talk
box and said to the voice: 'Mr Marlowe is here, Mr Umney.' Then she
leaned back and gave me a look.' I've got friends who could cut you
down so small you'd need a step-ladder to put your shoes on.'
'Somebody did a lot of hardwork on that one,' I said, 'But hardwork
is no substitute for talent.'
Playback - Raymond Chandler 1958
Chandler himself was a tad bitter about life in Hollywood and as a screenwriter:
"I am not interested in why the Hollywood system exists or persists, nor in learning out of what bitter struggles for prestige it arose, nor in how much money it succeeds in making out of bad pictures. I am interested only in the fact that as a result of it there is no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens - when there is any to destroy...
'There is no present indication whatever that the Hollywood writer is on the point of acquiring any real control over his work, any right to choose what that work shall be (other than refusing jobs, which he can only do within narrow limits), or even any right to decide how the values in the producer-chosen work shall be brought out. There is no present guarantee that his best lines, best ideas, best scenes will not be changed or omitted on the set by the director or dropped on the floor during the later process of cutting - for the simple but essential reason that the best things in any picture, artistically speaking, are invariably the easiest to leave out, mechanically speaking."
© Raymond Chandler - Altantic Magazine November 1945
Perhaps crime fiction grabs us all because the people in them seem to
be so very alive. (Save the corpse). They are caught up in things so
much bigger than themselves and we live our lives through them. I may
never find a fascination with Miss Marple, but I can see why people
do. Styles change and Swedish crime novels dominate now. We live in an era where the government is making criminals of
us all. Life is restricted in every which way and with every bend on
UK roads getting a speed camera, it is going to be come a very expensive
place to live.
We are entering a new society. There won't be the
romance and charm of Chandlerville in the future. Crime will be prevalent,
with an aging population, criminals may be older, delinquent 60 year
olds may need long sentences or electronic tagging. There is no honour
amongst thieves, if there ever was. With the government being able to
track us down through our iPhones, email, twitter and CCTV, the world of
the private eye will be high-tech, less mobile, spying on us from computers
and eavesdropping sentient microbots. These P.I.s won't get much chance
to banter with pretty secretaries, or mix with ambitious young wives
of older rich men. More's the pity. Savour Chandler now and fall in love with a whole way of life that's
a Raymond Chandler novel here
bookseller near you.) This piece first published 2005
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