Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler, 50 Years Dead


Writer who gave L.A. a lasting identity took the language of the street and made it sing

By Judith Freeman

Raymond Chandler died 50 years ago this week. On March 26, 1959, at 3:50 in the afternoon, he took his last breath in the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, having drunk himself to death, though the official cause of his demise was listed as pneumonia. He was 71 years old, an unhappy and lonely man who'd finally run out on his luck.

He died alone, with no friends at his side, which was pretty much the way he'd lived his life. His beloved wife, Cissy, had passed away five years earlier and ever since, he'd been trying to do himself in, first by taking a loaded gun into the shower and firing off a couple of rounds — what he later called the most inept suicide attempt in history — then later simply turning to gin and Scotch as his weapons of choice. Seventeen people showed up for his funeral, presided over by a pastor he'd only met once and didn't much care for.

He's buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, in an undistinguished grave — just a simple, flat headstone set flush with the ground and surrounded by nearly identical markers arranged in long, boring rows. Nobody thought to plant him next to his wife, whose ashes were stored in a crypt not far away. By then nobody really cared what Chandler might have wanted. If you want to pay a visit to his grave, you have to hunt for it. And there it is: Raymond Thornton Chandler, Author, 1888-1959, In Loving Memory. The "author" part nails it in that sublimely minimal way. Still, it's a pretty lousy little headstone for such a great writer.

We remember Chandler for a lot of things. As the guy who put L.A. on the literary map, along with John Fante and Nathanael West, who published their first novels the same year The Big Sleep came out, in 1939 — a boffo year for L.A. letters. We remember him as the writer who gave the city a lasting identity. As the person who elevated the lowly mystery to the realm of literature. As a damn funny writer who mastered the art of repartee and the bon mot. The guy who took the language of the street, American slang, and made it sing. The King of the Simile. The Bard of Bad Blondes. And perhaps most of all, we remember him as one of the great American literary stylists, capable of tossing off lines like these:

"Cops are like a doctor that gives you aspirin for a brain tumor, except that the cop would rather cure it with a blackjack."

"A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock."

"The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips."

"His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish."

"He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel."

And, a personal favorite: "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."

He said he was the first to write about Los Angeles in a realistic way. To write about a place, he said, you have to love it, or hate it, or both, alternately, the way you do a woman. Vacuity and boredom were futile. L.A. never bored him. He found it banal, maybe, but never vacuous. He both loved it (when he first arrived in 1912) and hated it (by the time he left in 1946), until finally, he said, it became a tired old whore to him. Never mind that he, more than any other writer, helped to turn Our Lady of the Queen of Angels into a woman of the night. He got this city better than anybody else, its rhythms and rudeness, its gas stations filled with wasted light, the houses in canyons hanging in the blackness, the smell of the air, the feel of the winds, the very pulse of the place, which is why his novels never seem dated: He captured the essence of the city, not just its temporal surface.

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