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The tough guy at the typewriter still sizzles

October 20, 2002|Tom Nolan | Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" and the editor of "Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald." From 'Farewell, My Lovely'

Let's take it from the top. All right, Marlowe, you're on the air:

"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars."

That's the distinctive voice of Philip Marlowe, the fictional Los Angeles private eye and first-person narrator of Raymond Chandler's seven novels, announcing his self-assured presence on the California literary landscape in the opening paragraph of Chandler's first book, "The Big Sleep."

With that voice of Marlowe's, wised-up but still romantic, Chandler told knowing tales of L.A. for 20 years -- from 1939, when there were streetcars on Hollywood Boulevard and orange groves beyond Pasadena, to 1959, when freeways were pushing ever west into the new suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Through Marlowe's voice, Chandler defined Los Angeles for generations of readers around the globe.

How often it's the out-of-town artist, with an outsider's sharpened vision, who best sums up a city and its natives. Virgil, a hick from the Mantuan sticks, became the greatest bard of Rome. The provincial Balzac was the perfect guide to 19th century Paris. And a mystery writer named Raymond Chandler -- born in Chicago, schooled in England -- was posthumously crowned prose-poet laureate of Los Angeles.

Chandler won the laurels through his remarkable style, full of verve and color and a seemingly endless parade of sentences that demand to be quoted. He possessed, among other tools, what Sue Grafton (one of Chandler's many literary children and grandchildren) has called "the mean eye," and he used it without much mercy. The books zing with thumbnail bull's-eyes:

"His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap."

"Suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully."

"Fuzz grew out of his ears, far enough to catch a moth."

"She was as cute as a washtub."

"He had beautiful teeth, but they hadn't grown in his mouth."

"She looked almost as hard to get as a haircut."

"His chin would never hit a wall before he saw it."

"There was lace at her throat, but it was the kind of throat that would have looked better in a football sweater."

"To say she had a face that would have stopped a clock would have been to insult her. It would have stopped a runaway horse."

But if one eye was mean, the other was susceptible to romance. Chandler also wrote mesmeric and evocative passages such as this one: "We went west, dropped over to Sunset and ... curved through the bright mile or two of the Strip ... past the gleaming new nightclubs with famous chefs and equally famous gambling rooms .... Past all this and down a wide smooth curve to the bridle path of Beverly Hills and lights to the south, all colors of the spectrum and crystal clear in an evening without fog, past the shadowed mansions up on the hills to the north, past Beverly Hills altogether and up into the twisting foothill boulevard and the sudden cool dusk and the drift of wind from the sea."

Chandler's visions of L.A. -- half-hard-boiled, half-lyrical -- proved irresistible not only to readers but also to Hollywood. The Marlowe books inspired several movies, a radio show and television series in both the black-and-white and cable eras. Other writers have created dozens of Marlowe imitators and successors for the page and screen. In recent years, there have been estate-authorized Marlowe "sequels" and Chandler "collaborations." Biographies have made Chandler's own exploits nearly as well-known as Marlowe's, and the author's collected correspondence has proved as quotable as his fiction.

In the last half-century's smog of homage, imitation and nostalgia, it's been easy to lose sight of Chandler's own work. Returning to the books themselves -- as this season's reprints of Raymond Chandler's novels and short stories in both hardcover and paperback create the occasion to do -- can be a revelation.

Read anew, Chandler's work seems as fresh and dazzling as ever. Of the seven novels, four can fairly be called masterpieces; and two of the three others, although flawed, have long flashes of brilliance.

In Chandler's debut detective novel, 1939's "The Big Sleep," the (for-now) sober Philip Marlowe is hired by that millionaire from the first paragraph, the aged General Sternwood, to keep blackmailers and gamblers from bothering one or both of his two high-living daughters. The case soon opens up to include a pornography racket, a missing ex-bootlegger and several corpses, in a plot that races all over the Thomas Bros. map: Pasadena to West Hollywood to the ocean, Laurel Canyon to beyond Bunker Hill.

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