Thursday, July 21, 2011

Remembering the City's Prince of Pulp

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."
-- Raymond Chandler, "Farewell, My Lovely," 1940

This Saturday, July 23, marks the 123rd anniversary of the birth of one of this city's greatest fiction writers, Raymond Chandler. Chandler was born on July 23, 1888 in Chicago. But Los Angeles is the city with which he is most closely associated, and where his mystery novels are set.
Chandler's most famous creation is private detective Philip Marlowe, who prowled the "mean streets" of Los Angeles, a term that Chandler coined. Marlowe was a citadel of moral fiber in a city that had long ago lost its way, seeming to spiral downward into a pit of decay and decadence. Through it all, Marlowe soldiered on, but it was a lonely struggle.
Chandler turned to fiction writing after a failed career as an oil company executive. His hard drinking caused him to be fired in the midst of the Depression. He wrote short stories for pulp crime magazines, and eventually, by age 50, published his first novel, "The Big Sleep."
His novels reflected his attitude toward Los Angeles -- the city is every bit a character in his fiction as is Marlowe. He saw L.A. as a sun-drenched paradise rotting from the inside, filled with hopefuls determined to reinvent themselves, and hucksters looking to make a quick score at the expense of the suckers.
Hired on to adapt James M. Caine's novel "Double Indemnity" to the screen, Chandler not only co-wrote the script with director Billy Wilder, he appeared in one of the film's scenes, reading and smoking a cigarette in a hallway as Fred MacMurray walks by -- a fact that went undiscovered for 55 years.
In addition to "Double Indemnity," Chandler also penned the "The Blue Dahlia" screenplay. His addiction to alcohol was so strong he allegedly went on a round-the-clock bender and dictated the script to secretaries in order to meet the deadline.
He died in 1959 in La Jolla, Calif., tired, written out and alcoholic. It wasn't until some years after his death that American critics began to hold his writing in equal esteem with that of the country's other great authors. Disappointing for Chandler, but like Marlowe he more or less took his lot in stride. He was fighting the good fight.

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