A Nasty Building

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African-American patron going in colored entrance of the Crescent Theatre in Belzoni, Mississippi, on a Saturday afternoon. 1939 PHOTO: Marion Post Wolcott

“My rubber heels slithered on the pavement as I turned into the narrow lobby of the Fulwider Building. A single drop light burned far back, beyond an open, once-gilt elevator.

“There was a tarnished and well-missed spittoon on a gnawed rubber mat. A case of false teeth hung on the mustard-coloured wall like a fuse box in a screen porch. I shook the rain off my hat and looked at the building directory beside the case fo teeth. Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vancacies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous. Painless dentists, shyster detective agencies, small sick businesses that had crawled there to die, mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railway clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer – if the postal inspectors didn’t catch up with them first. A nasty building. A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odour.”

 

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, chapter 26

I had a Chandler period, soon after my Lovecraft period, and overlapping with my Bob Dylan period. (Don’t we all, we lovers of American literature?) It was during a hot summer holiday, when all pastimes had been exhausted and absolutely nothing was on TV, and me and the people I hanged around discovered cheap paperback editions from a crime novel collection on sale at the local bookshop. I think I bought a couple of titles that had Humphrey Bogart on the cover, and was lucky enough that those were The Big Sleep and The Long Good-Bye.

Half way the first novel I was hooked, and soon after I started going around checking all bookshops and kiosks, looking for more Chandler titles. I read all I could, which was most of his Marlowe novels, and as abruptly as it started, the Chandler period ended. I even was unfaithful  to him, catching up with Hammett and his Maltese Falcon, and thinking he cut a cooler figure than the bespectacled, pipe-smoking Chandler.

Many years later, I noticed a Penguin compilation of Marlowe novels at the library, and realized I’d never read them in English. And here I am, in my second Chandler period, marvelling at how fresh his writing still reads, even taking into account how thoroughly plagiarized, parodied, homaged and ‘pastiched’ he’s been ever since good ol’ Marlowe paid a visit to the Sternwood place.

It makes me sad to think that perhaps many people don’t bother to read him because the detective’s name evokes a first person monologue full of cynicism and disdain, viciously lashing at the City of Angels and the femme fatales that prowl its alleys and nightclubs. They’re missing on the Chandler humour: Marlowe is genuinely funny when he teases the tough hombres that keep threatening him. And unlike Sam Spade, Mike Hammer and others of their kind, he does seem to like people.

Back then I bought those crime books because Bogart featured in the cover art, and I adored Bogart. Yet I can’t envisage him as Marlowe: too short, for a start, too eficient and too comfortable in his own skin for my taste. Many other actors have tried to fill in Marlowe’s shoes: Robert Montgomery; Dick Powell; Robert Mitchum (twice), James Garner, Elliott Gould; Powers Boothe. They all did great jobs with what scripts they were given, but none of them really work for me.

Which is just as well. The Marlowe in my imagination is a real person, full of imperfections, but also capable of great empathy towards all the sad and bizarre figures he keeps bumping into as he crosses that cruel and nasty Los Angeles.

Also, I wonder whether those mail order courses on screen writing were any good…

 


Pictures come from Wikimedia and are apparently in the public domain. Even though the photograph of the black man using a “colored only” entrance to the movie theatre was taken in Mississippi, things would have been similar in Marlowe’s Los Angeles, as Chandler showed in his next novel, Farewell, My Lovely

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Pacific Electric Railway cars piled atop one another at junkyard on Terminal Island, Calif., 1956 PHOTO: Los Angeles Times

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