Friday, March 12, 2010

In Chandler Town

The 2010 edition of Left Coast Crime got underway yesterday at the Omni Hotel in the revitalized Los Angeles neighborhood of Bunker Hill. Four blocks northwest of L.A.’s art deco City Hall (pictured on the left), that district wasn’t always home to the modern hotels, skyscrapers, art museums, and concert halls you find there now. In Raymond Chandler’s 1942 novel, The High Window, the author describes a very different world:
Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town ... Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work ... I parked at the end of the street, where the funicular railway comes struggling up the yellow clay bank from Hill Street, and walked along Court Street to the Florence Apartments.
If much has changed since Chandler’s day, one small piece of the “old town, lost town” remains: Angels Flight, the funicular railway Chandler mentioned (and which is shown below). You can still ride it from the base of Hill Street to the courtyard behind the Omni Hotel. And many crime-fiction aficionados will undoubtedly do just that on Saturday, when Chandler heir Michael Connelly--author of Angels Flight (1999), his own novel featuring Bunker Hill--hosts a lunch at the top for Left Coast Crime attendees.

Given this conference’s location and its association with Chandler, it seemed appropriate that my first appearance on the program yesterday was as part of a panel discussion about that author and his manifest influences on the genre. Journalist-novelist Denise Hamilton served as moderator, while Chandler biographer Judith Freeman was our co-panelist and star attraction. Freeman’s 2007 book, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, describes the intense, sometimes rocky relationship between Chandler and his wife, Cissy, documents the many moves they made throughout the city, and makes a strong case that Cissy--a divorcée 18 years older than her husband--ultimately provided Chandler with the stability and grounding he needed to stop drinking (and womanizing) and become the successful writer we recognize today.

During the panel discussion, Freeman also described how a former secretary of Chandler’s contacted her after the biography was published and thrilled her with many previously undocumented stories about the man and his foibles.

Hamilton compared and contrasted Chandler with his Southern California contemporaries, James M. Cain and Ross Macdonald. I contributed insights on Chandler’s writing process from my essay, “Writing The Long Goodbye,” and talked about my documentation of Chandler’s surprising cameo role in Billy Wilder’s seminal film noir, Double Indemnity.

After we were done with the panel discussion--and the crush of people at the signing table who wanted an autographed copy of Freeman’s book--the three of us did what only seemed appropriate: retired to the bar to partake of gimlets, the drink Chandler’s knight errant, Philip Marlowe, shared with his friend Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye.

READ MORE:Left Coast Crime L.A. Thursday & Friday,” by Jeri Westerson (Getting Medieval).

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