“Any man who can write a page of living prose adds something to our life, and the man who can, as I can, is surely the last to resent someone who can do it even better. An artist cannot deny art, nor would he want to. A lover cannot deny love.”
Raymond Chandler relished finding names for his quirky characters, including Philip Marlowe, the pipe-smoking, chess-playing private eye—a literary kinsman to Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s solitary sleuth—whom I first met in the pages of fiction as a teenager and whom I have known more than fifty years. Sometimes the names are dead giveaways about the morality or immorality of the character, sometimes they’re opaque, but I’ve always found them intriguing and an open invitation to try to solve the mystery myself. In his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) Chandler calls the bellicose gangster Eddie Mars, the smut peddler Arthur Gwynn Geiger, and the top cop Captain Cronjager. In The High Window (1942), Lois Magic is the femme fatale, Linda Conquest is a torch singer, and Leslie Murdoch is the effete son of a nasty heiress who has murdered her own husband and brainwashed Merle Davis (a wholesome girl from the Midwest and a victim of sexual assault) into thinking she’s guilty of the crime. Nice people, Marlowe observes wryly.
Born in Chicago in 1888, near the end of the Victorian era, raised in England among elite Edwardians, and transplanted to Los Angeles in 1913, Chandler saw California through the eyes of an English eccentric. A veteran of World War I who was wounded in action in France, and a child of Prohibition and Depression America, he recognized that crime was an industry in both boom and bust times, and a rich field for a writer. Then, too, as a displaced person and an alien in the Southern California world of cars and freeways, among phony and lonely people, he tapped into a vast reservoir of mass discontent. In his seven novels, all of them set in and around Los Angeles, he depicted the world as a vile place inhabited by loathsome people. A cynic, he envisioned no way to escape nastiness—certainly not by going to the movies, which, in his view, offered much the same trite boy-meets-girl story over and over again and trivialized psychological issues and social problems.
“Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him,” Chandler wrote of LA. He added that it was “a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.” Chandler loved and hated LA in much the same way that Balzac loved and hated mid-nineteenth-century Paris and F. Scott Fitzgerald loved and hated Jazz Age Manhattan.
And then check out this 1945 Atlantic article on Hollywood by Chandler:
Hollywood is easy to hate, easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon. Some of the best lampooning has been done by people who have never been through a studio gate, some of the best sneering by egocentric geniuses who departed huffily – not forgetting to collect their last pay check – leaving behind them nothing but the exquisite aroma of their personalities and a botched job for the tired hacks to clean up.
Even as far away as New York, where Hollywood assumes all really intelligent people live (since they obviously do not live in Hollywood), the disease of exaggeration can be caught. The motion picture critic of one of the less dazzled intellectual weeklies, commenting recently on a certain screenplay, remarked that it showed “how dull a couple of run-of-the-mill $3000-a-week writers can be.” I hope this critic will not be startled to learn that 50 per cent of the screenwriters of Hollywood made less than $10,000 last year, and that he could count on his fingers the number that made a steady income anywhere near the figure he so contemptuously mentioned. I don’t know whether they could be called run-of-the-mill writers or not. To me the phrase suggests something a little easier to get hold of.
I hold no brief for Hollywood. I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored. That should not be so. An industry with such vast resources and such magic techniques should not become dull so soon. An art which is capable of making all but the very best plays look trivial and contrived, all but the very best novels verbose and imitative, should not so quickly become wearisome to those who attempt to practice it with something else in mind than the cash drawer. The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.