Raymond Chandler the environmentalist.
The wise man, as Biblical lore has it, built his house on the rock, his foolish compatriot on the sand—guidance that mankind has ignored for millennia. In the late nineteenth century, the pioneers, or developers, or “boosters” who founded and promoted Los Angeles as a new “instant city” were among those to lay substantial foundations in what was essentially sand. Not on a desert, exactly—that myth’s been debunked—but perilously close to one, and on the shore of an undrinkable ocean.
Today, it’s not an excess of water—as in the scriptures and children’s song—that threatens Southern California, but a scarcity of it. The state is considering implementing desalination centers. As has been remarked in Europe, the city defines itself against its medieval origins; American metropolises define themselves against the wilderness. In John Fante’s 1939 LA novel, Ask the Dust, his alter ego, Arturo Bandini, revels in his adopted home’s mastery of nature: “This great city, these mighty pavements and proud buildings, they were the voice of my America. From sand and cactus we Americans had carved an empire.”
The landscape of that empire has proven to be a fecund source for artists. Paintings by the Bay Area’s Richard Diebenkorn, whose first UK retrospective is currently showing at the Royal Academy in London, have been described as “among the best visual evocations of Los Angeles there are.” Diebenkorn’s work has been compared to the pure abstraction of Piet Mondrian, but his most abstract series, “Ocean Park,” employs the same visual language as his figurative paintings—a language that resembles, in the least demeaning way possible, paint-by-number landscapes. Large monochrome sections of the canvas pertain to natural elements. The grass is green, the ocean is blue, the sand is yellow. In Cityscape #1 (1963) the sand is seeping through.
The painting calls to mind a passage in another Los Angeles–based work, Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (1940), in which his PI, Philip Marlowe, visits a would-be interrogatee:
1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out house with a dried out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough looking palm tree.
For many, Chandler is siloed as a crime writer—a designation he believed to be “slightly below assault.” Few would consider him a writer concerned with the environment or, even more, as a proponent of ecocriticism. But should we?
W. H. Auden is often credited for rescuing Chandler from pulp obscurity with his essay “The Guilty Vicarage.” For Auden, Chandler wrote “serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place”; his works stood opposed to thrillers set in an “Eden like” scenario against which we witness the “contradiction of murder,” as in any number of Agatha Christie novels.
Isn’t Los Angeles something of an earthly Eden, though? Not in Chandler. For all his Romantic leanings, nature, in his work, is seldom a source of solace; instead, nature in his Los Angeles is a source of anxiety, as it must be for any environmentally conscious person. By the time Chandler arrived in the city in 1913, the “booster myth” of orange groves, sunshine, and tropical foliage was wearing thin. In fact, the opening of The Big Sleep goes some way toward puncturing that myth:
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 …
Once you start to look for it, the tension between the area’s beautiful flora and fauna and the sprawl of its urban features is unavoidable in Chandler’s work. It’s even in the title of The Blue Dahlia: referring to a sleazy nightclub, the phrase mingles gaudy neon with indigenous flora. No dahlia is naturally blue.
According to William Howarth, who laid out “Some Principles of Ecocriticism,” an effective ecocritic should highlight culture’s impact on nature, with a view to celebrating nature and “berating its despoilers.” It’s not hard to find such ambitions in Chandler. Marlowe’s Los Angeles is one where neon challenges the sun, rubber trees replace natural flora, and the ocean is polluted. When Los Angeles was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, various flora and fauna were imported; eucalyptus trees from Australia, cypress trees from Italy, pepper trees from Peru, and more. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe observes this:
There were all sorts of ornamental trees in clumps here and there and they didn’t look like Californian trees. Imported stuff. Whoever built the place was trying to drag the Atlantic seaboard over the Rockies.
Lord Byron once opined that “man marks the earth with his ruin—his control stops with the shore.” Chandler might say it goes further. In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe calls Bay City—a fictionalized version of Santa Monica—a “dirty bathtub”; the ocean there hosts two gambling ships and the shore scene is, to say the least, unbeautiful.
There was a faint smell of ocean. Not very much, but as if they had kept this much just to remind people this had once been a clean open beach where the waves came in and the wind blew and you could smell something besides hot fat and cold sweat …
In the same book, Marlowe adopts a “shiny black bug with a pink head and pink spots” as his “lucky piece”; he rescues it from the Los Angeles Police Headquarters, takes it outside, and places it behind a bush. Later, at the novel’s end, with the case closed, he signs off: “So long. Did my pink bug ever get back up here?”
What, then, of Chandler’s doling out of poetic justice, his “berating of the despoilers”? If Los Angeles is a sordid slum amid copious beauty, who is to blame? In The Big Sleep, Marlowe’s employer General Sternwood lives in a hilltop mansion. Sternwood is an archetypal booster figure who, with his “thin bloodless hands,” resembles Bram Stoker’s Count. He’s a different sort of vampire though: an oilman. “The Sternwoods, having moved up the hill, could no longer smell the stale sump of water or the oil,” Marlowe thinks, “but they could still look out of their front windows and see what had made them rich. If they wanted to. I didn’t suppose they would want to.” Indeed, in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, a film heavily indebted to Chandler, the villains are shown to be exploiting the region’s natural resources for personal gain. In an early scene, the town’s former mayor Sam Bagby delivers an impassioned speech in favor of the proposed and controversial Alto Vallejo Dam and Reservoir: “Beneath this building, beneath every street, there’s a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed!”
The effect of the desert on Los Angeles has been noted by various writers—Joan Didion found that the Santa Ana winds dry “up the nerves to a flash point,” and Chandler that they “curl your hair and make your nerves jump,” prompting “meek little wives [to] feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” The desert prompts dangerous, animal behavior, and Los Angeles, per the earlier description of the parched yard, is a city nourished by its sand. Sternwood’s daughter and (spoiler alert) culprit in The Big Sleep, Carmen, has “predatory teeth, as white a fresh orange pith,” referencing those resilient myths of bountiful orange groves and fertility—but her healthy appearance, too, is a myth. A child of the city, fathered by a booster, Carmen is more like the arid desert on its borders. There’s not the slightest hint of treachery in her appearance, but she is wild and amoral.
If that reading seems a stretch, consider the climax of The Blue Dahlia, where “Dad” Newell is revealed as the murderer of returned war veteran Johnny Morrison’s wife. Chandler hadn’t intended this. He originally cast Johnny’s veteran buddy “Buzz” as the murderer, but the studio couldn’t allow a war hero to be a criminal. The script, however, reveals Buzz’s motive when, on his return to Los Angeles, he sees Helen Morrison picking apart a flower. “What’re you doing that for? Picking at that flower! I don’t like it!” he yells. Later, trying to make sense of Buzz’s attack, another character says, “He got terribly upset when I began to pull the petals from this flower.” One reviewer of The Blue Dahlia warned viewers that the film was in essence “homicidal rather than horticultural”—but, as with all Chandler’s work, that isn’t, strictly speaking, the case.
One of the few missteps in John Banville’s recent Chandler continuation novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, comes when his Marlowe shrugs at nature: “I don’t think I’d have recognized a daffodil if I saw one.” Chandler’s Marlowe would’ve done more than recognize it; he would’ve stopped to smell it, too.
Rhys Griffiths is a London-based writer and editor. He works at History Today and occasionally tweets @nobeetles.