The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, was printed this fall and mailed to subscribing LARB members. Click here to get your subscription today.
“WE’RE GOING TO TALK about Raymond Chandler for the next four hours,” the tour guide says. I’m on a bus with about 30 people on “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: In A Lonely Place, An Esotouric Bus Adventure.” The driver has just pulled to the curb on Olive Street in front of the Los Angeles Athletic Club and across the street from Giannini Place, where Chandler worked as VP of the Dabney Oil Syndicate until booze, flakiness, and dalliances with female employees led to his dismissal and then to his writing career.
We get off the bus and cross the street to visit the Art Deco entrance to the Oviatt Building. The tour guide recites the history of the building and reads a passage from Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake that describes where we’re standing: “The sidewalk in front of the building had been built of black and white rubber blocks.” The rubber was removed to be recycled for the war effort, but other things have remained the same; he continues: “They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.” Much of the architectural detail survived the decades — sconces and stained glass and Art Deco detailing — and much of today’s Los Angeles was Chandler’s setting 70 years ago. Anyone writing crime fiction set in Southern California today is writing in Chandler’s milieu.
Raymond Chandler, the author of The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, is widely regarded as a titan of the subgenre of crime fiction. Among writers and scholars, though, his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” first published in The Atlantic in 1944, is nearly as well known as his fiction. In this takedown of the English tradition of mystery stories, he lambasts the Golden Age of detective fiction (“Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few unforgettable lines of dialogue”) and, after offering a detailed critique of a number of those stories, offers this summation: “There is a very simple statement to be made about all of these stories: they do not come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction.”
Later in the essay, Chandler cites Dashiell Hammett as representative of a different style of detective fiction, one that deals in realistic situations and uses realistic violence to achieve its ends. Due to this realism, Chandler argues, this fiction has the potential to engage in a kind of literary art that is otherwise absent in the genre. Of those who challenged Hammett’s work as mysteries, he says, “These are the flustered old ladies ... [who] do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty.”
In the first few paragraphs of his essay, Chandler describes the ideal detective. In a well-known passage of the work, he writes: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” This distils the essence of Philip Marlowe, the intrepid knight-errant protagonist of Chandler’s seven novels and most of his short stories. He wasn’t the first detective of his kind — but he was perhaps the finest — and has become archetype of hard-boiled protagonists in the decades since his creation.
What sets Chandler and others of the hard-boiled school apart from the broader genre of mystery fiction is the idea that violence has consequences from which one can never fully recover. Even if the murder is solved and the killer brought to justice, order can never be completely restored, because it never truly existed in the first place. With his fiction and (even more prescriptively) with “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler established a paradigm for literary crime fiction that would dominate the genre for well over half a century.
Due to the many reproductions of his novels, that paradigm has necessarily included Chandler’s literary style, as well as his vivid depictions of Southern California, and both aspects have become conventions of the hard-boiled style. Two recent novels — Matt Coyle’s Yesterday’s Echo and Michael Krikorian’s Southside — highlight these sometimes disparate aspects of the genre.
“The first time I saw her, she made me remember and she made me forget,” Rick Cahill, Coyle’s protagonist, says at the outset. The woman to whom he refers is Melody Malana, a journalist from Northern California who appears seemingly at random in the La Jolla restaurant, Muldoon’s, that Cahill manages. He’s drawn to her immediately but does nothing to act on the attraction aside from mild flirting. Over the course of the evening, she has encounters with two different men: one we’ll later learn is her ex-husband, the other a wealthy and powerful suit with dark and unclear motives. Cahill fights the urge to intervene when things get unpleasant between Melody and her ex, but when the second man, Peter Stone, asserts his dominance, Rick can’t stop himself from intervening. Though the physical confrontation is relatively minor, it is loaded with portent and menace, and, of course, Melody shares Rick’s bed that night.
The first chapter, and indeed, most of those that follow, are filled with tropes of the hard-boiled genre. Most of them would seem right at home in one of Chandler’s own novels. In Melody, there’s a variation of the classic femme fatale — Rick is never sure if she’ll be his salvation or his doom, and while we as readers might have a stronger inclination than he does, we’re never sure, either. There’s Melody’s ex-husband, whose body is found the next day, setting in motion a complex plot that pulls Rick into its depths. There’s Turk Muldoon, the hero’s best friend and employer, whose loyalty we don’t want to question, but are forced to. There are Chief Raymond Parks and Detective Tony Moretti, the cops who may or may not be dirty, but undoubtedly believe Rick needs to be stopped. More than any of these individual characters, though, perhaps the most powerful and significant trope deployed here is the past that haunts Rick. Eight years before the opening of Yesterday’s Echo, Rick’s wife Colleen was murdered, and though the case remains unsolved, Rick is still everyone’s prime suspect. There are thugs, altercations, twists, and unexpected developments, and woven throughout, hints of the possibility of Rick being able to grasp the big brass ring — redemption.
If that last paragraph sounds like a catalog of worn-out stereotypes and clichés, it’s meant to, because the most genuinely impressive aspect of Yesterday’s Echo is that none of these elements read that way. Muldoon and Kim Connelly, for example, are supporting characters who in most genre novels would be little more than cardboard cut-outs, labeled “stalwart buddy” and “torch-carrying ex,” but here are rendered with a complex humanity that is both authentic and moving. In the hands of a less skilled writer, these two characters, like many other elements of the novel, would be little more than plot points deployed for unexpected narrative twists and manufactured surprises. Matt Coyle, however, has a style and voice that is effective in delivering the rewards the genre has to offer. There’s suspense and excitement and solid plot that keeps us guessing right up to the last chapter. But more significantly, there is a depth to the characterization here that makes Rick and all those he interacts with human and recognizable. Rick’s first-person narration is subtle; we are able to see slightly beyond Rick’s subjectivity — we occasionally glimpse the world beyond his perspective, showing us that he, unlike Chandler’s Marlowe, doesn’t have all the answers. Coyle’s characterization is more forgiving of his protagonist than Chandler ever was. Rick is, at times, both tarnished and afraid.
Coyle’s voice, on the other hand, faithfully echoes Chandler’s. For instance, Chandler’s short story, “Red Wind,” a rehearsal of many themes and motifs — missing women, blackmail schemes, and metaphorical games of chess — that he would later explore more fully in his novels, opens with these famous lines:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. 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. 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.
Coyle uses this evocative description of one of Southern California’s most well known weather phenomena and uses it as a recurring motif. Coyle writes:
The sun had peeled the last layer of gray and glared down at me, forcing my route into the shrinking shadows. The morning air now had a wiggle in it. The breeze blew hot and out to the sea. A mounting Santa Ana. The devil wind sucked the air dry of moisture, raked an all-day itch across your skin, and induced closeted pyros to light a match.
These riffs work on two levels, both as direct homage and as vivid details evoking moments of the story with clarity and specificity. While they may not quite match Chandler in terms of style or punch, they serve the story well. Perhaps the way Coyle most honors Chandler’s legacy is the same way Chandler honored Hammett — by never allowing the influence of the writer he’s emulating get in the way of the story he’s telling. Because Coyle is both conscious of Chandler’s influence and in control of it, he is able to deploy here so effectively that which might otherwise read as derivative cliché, but instead comes across as a successful homage.
Chandler, of course, isn’t everybody’s cup of bourbon. The prominent mystery writer Naomi Hirahara recently wrote:
I have to make the kind of confession that is just terrible for an L.A.-based mystery writer: I am not a fan of Raymond Chandler. He has set a tone for stories about the darkness under L.A.’s glitz for eighty years, but I can’t relate to the paranoid view Chandler had of my Los Angeles, or his fear of “the other,” or how his loner detective Philip Marlowe navigated his investigative cases without the weight of family or community.
Aspects of the paranoid view that Hirahara identifies can be attributed to the time in which Chandler was writing, but it’s fair to say his preoccupations with wealth and power and whiteness are as endemic in his fiction as the class-distinction and murder-as-a-puzzle contrivances he criticized in the English mystery tradition. Chandler’s depiction of a white man as the archetypal outsider is one of the more problematic elements of his legacy, and one that prefigures much contemporary criticism of crime fiction, a genre which is still, in many of its most popular forms, largely the domain of white men.
Michael Krikorian’s Southside grapples with this issue in a manner from which most Southern California crime fiction shies away. Krikorian is a former gang reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and his considerable authority on the subject is clear. The novel’s protagonist, Michael Lyons, covers gangs for the city’s major newspaper, and when he’s shot outside his favorite bar after a midday double, a complex plot of revenge and retribution begins to unfold.
Krikorian nails the newspaper culture with both humor and venom. Almost as soon as the shooting occurs, Lyons’s colleagues form a “Who shot Mike?” betting pool. The speculation grows even more intense when a tape recording of a conversation between Lyons and a gang shot caller named King Funeral, in which he suggests being shot might give him more street cred, is made public. As the story develops, we see both the newspaper business and the criminal investigation in vividly realistic detail.
We know early on, though, that Lyons was not responsible for his own attack. No. The shooter was Eddie Sims. There’s no mystery in this — Krikorian reveals the attacker’s identity early on. We know not only who did it, but we also see more of what Sims has in store. Years earlier, his son, who had avoided the gangs so many of his peers were involved with, was killed in an incident involving the leader of a local crew, Big Evil. After Sims sees a documentary that shows Big Evil flourishing as a trustee in a super-max prison, he decides to take revenge on those who failed to seek the death penalty in Big Evil’s trial. Death Row, Sims believes, even without the ultimate punishment, would still be a fitting fate for Big Evil. Lyons is Sims’s first target because the reporter wrote a profile of the gang leader that humanized him and granted him even more notoriety than he already possessed.
Krikorian does much the same thing for his characters here as Lyons does for those he profiles. He gives voice to the realities of their lives in South Central Los Angeles in a way Chandler never could. Eddie Sims, in all his grief and loss and capacity for senseless violence, is the most compelling of the central characters. When Sims is on the run and holed up in a cheap motel, Krikorian writes that “he stayed in his room and watched the news. There was nothing of interest. He finally fell asleep around three in the neon morning, his reloaded S&W revolver in the nightstand drawer atop the Gideon Bible.” Even as we’re horrified we feel empathy; Sims is recognizably and understandably human. He’s a character who, in Chandler’s world, would be invisible, but whom Krikorian makes visible.
Southside is written in a combined first- and third-person perspective, but the portions written in the third person achieve an authenticity and authority that is absent in Lyons’s first-person point of view. Reading, I had the impression that Krikorian was trying too hard to fit Lyons into the mold of the hard-boiled hero Chandler described in “The Simple Art of Murder,” and wondered if Lyons, as he goes down the meanest streets Los Angeles has to offer, might in fact be mean himself. By the end, tarnished though he is, Lyons is shown not to be mean, but for a novel that examines the underside of Southern California (untouched since before Chandler began writing), that is only a minor consideration. While Lyons’s redemptive actions in the novel’s final act might not ring entirely true, ultimately, Krikorian’s authority on the subject overcomes the limitations of his protagonist’s characterization, and Southside becomes an examination of a Los Angeles too seldom seen in serious crime fiction.
Taken together, both Southside and Yesterday’s Echo can be read as two distinct aspects of Chandler’s legacy. In terms of style, voice, and tone, Matt Coyle ably follows in the master’s stylistic footsteps and evokes the literary quality with which Chandler imbued the Southern Californian tradition of detective literature. That Coyle’s work can be read as both an overt homage to Chandler and a compelling contemporary crime story demonstrates the breadth of Chandler’s influence and the timelessness of the conventions he established. Krikorian, on the other hand, builds an authentic Southern California landscape that allows the vast blind spots in Chandler’s vision to be at least partially filled in. Perhaps, it’s fitting that Krikorian’s rendering of this landscape is more problematic and less cohesive than Coyle’s. Chandler’s creation of the mythic Philip Marlowe was so successful it turned the author himself into a figure almost as mythic. These two novels find the value not only of furthering the myth, but also of tearing it down.
The bus tour ends a block away from where it began, in the rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles Arts District. The tour guide regales us with the last sad anecdotes of Chandler’s later years and his suicide attempt; I’m struck by how thoroughly and effectively the tour has deconstructed Chandler the writer and replaced him with Chandler the man. Gone is the myth, and present is the humanity, faults and failings in full relief.
Chandler argues midway through “The Simple Art of Murder” that all fiction, from the most populist to the most literary, is about escapism. It’s not hard to imagine the writer’s greatest creation, Philip Marlowe himself, as an idealized, wish-fulfilling fantasy. Marlowe may have been neither tarnished nor afraid, but it’s become impossible for me to think of Chandler as anything but the embodiment of those two qualities, and surprisingly, I like him even more for it.
We disembark from the bus and say goodbye to the tour guide just outside the parking lot of a hip and upscale market. I go inside to use the restroom and see Teri Hatcher (of Desperate Housewives) sitting at a table near the deli counter. Outside again, now with a loaf of fresh-baked garlic sourdough, there is a barbed wire-topped automatic gate at the other end of the lot and two men, apparently homeless, leaning against what looks like an old and crumbling building. It’s only when I see a banner advertising the lofts inside that I realize the building is actually filled with luxury condos.
Down these mean streets a man must go.