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The View Through the Private Eye's Windshield : What the newer writers cannot quite command is the bruised romanticism of the older private eyes and their world.

May 29, 1994|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Charles Champlin writes the monthly Criminal Pursuits column in Book Review

Years before I came to Los Angeles to live, I felt as if I knew the city well already. I had ridden up and down its mean streets as a passenger sitting alongside Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, with Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald as our tour guides.

The street names were sometimes exotic (how did you pronounce La Cienega?), but they had become as familiar to me as Lake, Main and Liberty in my home town. When I came to drive in the city myself, I recognized the bungalows of West Hollywood with their tiny, struggling patches of lawn, and the derricks pumping in the hills and the incandescent carpet of lights seen from Mulholland by night, all as if I'd been there before--and in a sense I had.

Chandler and Macdonald were inspired by the city to a remarkable prose-poetry. There were songs of celebration, and sometimes a hard-eyed irony. One of my favorite passages in Chandler is a kind of litany for a drive Marlowe takes to Malibu and back, just to pull his thoughts together, in "The Little Sister" (1949):

"I drove east on Sunset but I didn't go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. . . . I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed car-hops, the brilliant counters, and sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad."

The last drive-in is gone, replaced by drive-thrus, the car-hops replaced by disembodied arms that hand paper bags of food out of a service window. The Hollywood Freeway now takes you over Cahuenga Pass to the Valley, as it didn't when Chandler was writing.

Yet what seems remarkable is not what changes, but how much stays the same. In 1987, Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward published "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles," a book of photographs that demonstrated, quite astonishingly, how many of the streets, neighborhoods, buildings large and small that he described, even the moods of shadowy foreboding, could still be captured almost a half-century after he wrote.

And on a smoggy day or night, you can still verify the truth of a couple of lines from the same piece in "The Little Sister": "I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long."

Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer also caught a timeless Los Angeles. In "The Way Some People Die" (1951), Archer visits a fictional Pacific Point south of Long Beach (the beach cities were often renamed to protect the guilty). It could be any of several places along the littoral:

"It rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory. . . . On the other side of the tracks--the tracks were there--the business section wore its old Spanish facades like icing on a stale cake."

Like Chandler, Macdonald was a fast hand with a simile. "Parking spaces in downtown Hollywood were as scarce as the cardinal virtues," he wrote in the same novel, and he speaks of "the corner of Hollywood and Vine, where everything ends and a great many things begin."

In the first of the Archer books, "The Moving Target" (1949), Archer calls on a client in one of the ritzy enclaves up the coast beyond Malibu. "The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon's mouth. . . . I had never seen the Pacific look so small."

Macdonald brings Southern California into the 1970s. In "The Underground Man" (1971), murderous events going back 15 years are uncovered by a ruinous fire so well described that it could be any of the recent devastations: "Sparks and embers were blowing down the canyon, plunging into the trees behind the house like bright exotic birds taking the place of the birds that had flown."

Macdonald died in 1983 of the complications of Alzheimer's. But the fascination of Southern California and its mean streets (sometimes as mean where the rich live as where they don't) has carried forward to a new generation of voices evoking a later Los Angeles, where the tensions, angers and troubles make the world Chandler and Macdonald described seem as uncomplicated and nostalgically attractive as the doings in old movies.

Like the two classic stylists they follow, the best of the new writers see Southern California as a shaping presence, an additional character in the tale, from T. Jefferson Parker in "Summer of Fear" describing his character's house on stilts swaying in the hot Santa Ana wind in Laguna Canyon, to Michael Nava in "The Hidden Law" (1992) dramatizing the long distance (every way but geographically) between east side barrio and the glistening towers of the central city.

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