Tag Archives: crime fiction

Raymond Chandler and a Noir View of Santa Monica

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch.  On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight.  Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.–Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind”

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Raymond Chandler

I’ve never been a huge fan of crime fiction, but I’ve found I can’t resist Raymond Chandler, the king of the detective novel, because he can turn a phrase like no one else.  Sit down with one of his classics–Farewell, My Lovely or The Long Goodbye, for example–and you’ll soon find yourself on the hunt for “Chandlerisms” like “as conspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” His dialogue and similes are so crazy and over the top I want to memorize them and use them in my own conversation.

imagesBeyond the similes, you start to recognize in Chandler’s work all of the hallmarks of “hard-boiled” and “noir” detective fiction–the shadowy scenery, the sleazy criminals, and Phillip Marlowe, the epitome of the tough and surprisingly idealistic private eye. The dialogue, the setting, and the characters are all as familiar as the nose on a washed-up boxer’s ugly mug, but it was Chandler who created them and, in the process (along with fellow crime writers Dashiell Hammett  and James M. Cain), pioneered a uniquely American literary genre and style.

Bogie and Bacall brought his hard-boiled characters to life on the big screen and his stories have been the subject of parody by everyone from Woody Allen to Steve Martin to Garrison Keillor.  As Paul Auster, a modern crime writer, says, “Raymond Chandler invited a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.”

In Raymond Chandler's day, an infamous fleet of gambling ships anchored just far enough offshore to be beyond the jurisdiction of California state law.
In Raymond Chandler’s day, an infamous fleet of gambling ships anchored just far enough offshore to be beyond the jurisdiction of California state law.

The Los Angeles area of the 1930s and 1940s was rife with organized crime, greed, and celebrity scandals.  In particular, daily life in Santa Monica, the beachfront town on the western edge of Los Angeles where Chandler lived for a time and which appears as Bay City in his books, offered plenty of material from which to draw his stories.

If you visit Santa Monica and the Los Angeles area, it’s fun to read Chandler’s books and those of his crime fiction contemporaries and picture the area as it was then.  He described it as a place with “lots of churches and almost as many bars.”  It’ll add a little depth to your understanding of the area, beyond Hollywood and UCLA/USC football.  Esotouric offers literary tours of Los Angeles including one focused on Raymond Chandler and another on James M. Cain. You might also enjoy their podcasts.  In addition, the Santa Monica Conservancy offers walking tours that cover Santa Monica history.

Santa Monica’s “mean streets” have been replaced by glamorous shopping streets such as Montana Avenue and the Third Street Promenade.  Yet, enough of the old Bay City remains today to get your imagination moving, including the famous Santa Monica Pier and Main Street’s deco-era City Hall, the scene of many of Phillip Marlowe’s coming and goings. Of course, there’s still the harbor and “beyond it the huge emptiness of the Pacific, purple-gray, that trudges into shore like a scrubwomen going home.”

 

 

 

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Murder and Mayhem: Investigating Crime Fiction

I hardly ever read crime novels. When I have, the experience has usually been a disappointment. The books were “low-brow,” with weak characters, predictable plots and lame dialog. However, this genre is so popular I’ve always figured that I must somehow be missing the good stuff. It was a mystery to me.

Another fact that has piqued my curiosity about crime novels is that the Twin Cities area, where I live, has more crime writers per capita than just about anywhere. A few years ago, an article in The Economist of all places, speculated, “Why do the Twin Cities create so much literary gore?” The answer was three-fold. There are a lot of advertising agencies here, which have spun out several successful crime writers (not sure about that connection aside from a very abbreviated, direct writing style). Also, several former reporters for the two major newspapers here have moved from journalism to fiction, true crime to the imaginary version. Finally, some attribute it to the weather. One writer, Brian Freeman, who has published a crime novel set in Duluth, in northern Minnesota, explained to The Economist, “What is there to do during those long winter months beside sit inside and think dark thoughts of murder and mayhem?”

I decided to conduct my own investigation into the virtues of crime fiction and go to the source, Once Upon a Crime, the bookstore in Minneapolis. Tucked into the lower level of a building on 26th Street, just east of Lyndale Avenue, Once Upon a Crime is truly a hidden gem, though not a secret to crime fiction lovers.  Pat Frovarp owns the shop with her husband, Gary, and a dog appropriately named Shamus,  She doesn’t just know about the writers, she knows a huge number of the writers personally. This year the store won The Raven Award, the top honor for non-authors given at the annual Edgar Awards, sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America.

She gave me a quick tutorial on the genre and revealed a world far more intriguing than those crime or thriller books one sees on the racks in grocery stores and airports. The store handles fiction only, no true crime. Under this umbrella one can find countless sub-genres, something for every taste—“hard-boiled” and violent to “soft-boiled” Agatha Christie-type works which Pat calls “cozies.”  Pick just about any part of the world or any period in history, there’s crime fiction that takes place there. Best of all, for someone like me, there are works that weave in history and that I (yes, snobbishly) would call “literary.”  I had trouble narrowing it down, but I left the store with The Canterbury Papers, a novel by Minneapolis writer Judith Koll Healey that takes place in the Middle Ages and Big Wheat, a mystery story set in the Dakotas in 1919, by St. Paul author Richard A. Thompson.

I can’t wait to settle in for a long read on a dark and stormy (and cold) night.  I also anticipate going back to visit Pat for a discussion of books, crime and dogs.