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The Mystery Man : Raymond Chandler captured the heartbeat of L.A. A new collection shows his influence still resonates in our times.

November 03, 1995|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If, as is often said, every city has at least one writer it can claim for a muse, Raymond Chandler must be Los Angeles'. To be sure, there are other candidates: John Fante and Nathanael West come immediately to mind, while from a later generation, Joan Didion more than makes the grade. Yet Fante's work was too personal to be truly universal, and West's oeuvre was just too small. Didion, for her part, has become an author of global vision, which may explain why she abandoned Southern California for New York.

That leaves Chandler as the one L.A. writer whose books have as a consistent center the idea of the city as a living, breathing character--capturing the sights, the smells, the bleak glare of the sunlight, the deceptive smoothness of the surface beneath which nothing is as it seems.

Even the fact that Chandler wrote mysteries, not literary fiction, is oddly fitting, for Los Angeles has always existed not so much in conjunction with East Coast or European intellectual traditions as in reaction to them, a place where high and low culture constantly merge. Maybe it's the influence of the movies, or, in the words of novelist John Gregory Dunne, the fact that "Los Angeles is three thousand miles away."

But as biographer Frank MacShane explains in "The Life of Raymond Chandler," "There is something appropriate in Chandler's choosing the detective story as his vehicle for presenting Los Angeles. . . . The detective story, so peculiar to the modern city, can involve an extraordinary range of humanity, from the very rich to the very poor, and can encompass a great many different places. Most of Chandler's contemporaries who wrote 'straight' fiction--Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner, for example--confined themselves to a special setting and a limited cast of characters. The detective story, however, allowed Chandler to create the whole of Los Angeles in much the same way that such 19th-Century novelists as Dickens and Balzac created London and Paris for future generations."

Chandler, of course, has never been a Los Angeles secret; his books have sold steadily from the moment they began to appear more than 50 years ago, and his distinctive, clipped style and characters have become so persuasive as to be cultural cliches. Half a century later, Philip Marlowe remains the quintessential urban private eye, a solitary hero who, in "Farewell, My Lovely," sums up his point of view: "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a house in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."

It's a desolate perspective, almost prototypically existential, that at the same time implies a certain moral vision, a sense of seeing the world for the darkness it holds and still trying to do what's right. It's because of this, I believe, that Chandler's influence has continued to resonate so strongly in our own times, since when you get right down to it, Marlowe knows the score.

Thinking about that, I can't help wondering what Chandler's detective would make of the recent release by the Library of America of "Raymond Chandler: Stories and Early Novels" and "Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings," a two-volume, 2,200-page set collecting all seven Marlowe novels and 13 short stories, along with some miscellaneous odds and ends. Such a publication represents a validation. But it's also a bit incongruous, as if we're getting away with something when what we find staring back at us from all that onionskin paper--delicate like a Bible--is Philip Marlowe and his black-and-white world.

What's most striking about the Library of America's interest in Chandler is the fact that he's not only the first "genre" writer they've collected, but the first Los Angeles writer as well. Nowhere in the series' 50-odd volumes will you find, say, Fante or West, nor even F. Scott Fitzgerald, who, toward the end of his life, turned his eye upon Hollywood. According to publisher Max Rudin, that doesn't mean much. "There's a common misperception that order says something about literary significance," he says. "But our decisions have to balance our mission--to produce a series that will ultimately include all significant American writers--with staying alive."

Nonetheless, there's an irony at work since the Library of America was originally the dream of critic Edmund Wilson, whose 1945 New Yorker essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" dismissed virtually the entire mystery genre except for Chandler, damning him instead with faint praise. Wilson died before his idea for the library became a reality, but you have to wonder what he might think about Chandler's inclusion and what it says about what Rudin calls the "false dichotomy" between literary and popular culture, which seems to grow smaller every day.

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