Sunday, July 23, 2017

The clews from Raymond Chandler’s war

Decades after his death, and with a shelf full of biographies, Raymond Chandler still hasn’t given up the last of his secrets. 

I know, because my own Chandler research sent me down the rabbit hole that ended in discovery of The Princess and the Pedlar, a comic operetta in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan that Chandler wrote in collaboration with Julian Pascal, the husband of Cissy, the woman who would become Chandler’s wife and lifelong muse.

The operetta was finished, or close to it, in summer 1917, when Chandler resigned his bookkeeping job at the Los Angeles Creamery and travelled to Vancouver. 

There he volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which offered him a starting weekly benefit of $15, which he assigned to his mother, Florence. The money was sent to her new Los Angeles address, at 127 South Vendome Street, the residence of Julian and Cissy Pascal.

There was room for a boarder at 127 Vendome, because Gordon Pascal, Julian’s 20-year-old son by a previous marriage, also joined the CEF. He stood as his best friend Ray’s witness, and Ray his, as each took the oath of faith and allegiance to King George V, His Heirs and Successors. Gordon, British born, likely meant it, but I wonder if Ray was just going through the motions. But  in signing up, he ensured his mother’s support, and his own absence from a personal situation that had apparently become untenable.  

It’s startling to think of Raymond Chandler, whose brain would give us Philip Marlowe and so many deathless observations about Los Angeles, crossing the Atlantic to serve as cannon fodder in the war to end all wars. But there it is in elegant ink on Manila paper: Chandler, Raymond Thornton, Private in the 50th Regiment Reinforcements. 

And also, the declaration that he did not know if his father, the drunken Quaker railroad man who had abandoned the family and set Chandler on his own weird, stateless path, was alive or dead. (Maurice Chandler was in fact, still living.)

Private Raymond Chandler might so easily have died himself. Not just in battle, although the war was terrible for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but of illness.

And indeed, his recently digitized military records reveal two bouts with influenza during the peak of the deadly pandemic. 

Chandler was sent to the infirmary twice in England, in July and October 1918. Each time, he recovered after six days. Millions of young people were not as hardy. Among the artists who succumbed in Europe, the painter Egon Schiele died October 31, 1918, poet Guillaume Apollinaire nine days later. 

Chandler was not previously known to be a survivor of the Spanish Flu, and I have added his name to Wikipedia’s list of notables who fought off their infection.

It’s interesting to note that his medical records show no affection of the Genito Urinary system, that is no infectious hangovers from the erotic adventures typical of soldiers facing death. His apparent chastity supports the theory that Chandler went to war because he was in love with Cissy and didn’t want to break up the Pascal marriage. 

There is another surprise to be found in Chandler’s wartime records. With my discovery of The Princess and the Pedlar, it wouldn’t be too unexpected if this full-time bookkeeper and amateur librettist chose to give his peacetime occupation as “writer” or “playwright.” 

But at the induction center in Vancouver, Raymond Chandler proudly declared himself to be a Journalist. 

It was in this analytic mindset that he set off on the great and terrible adventure that shaped his life in ways we will never know. But it is only from war that could come understanding of the deep masculine friendships that make The Long Goodbye his greatest book. The self-destructive drinking, the inability to handle stress and creative deadlines, may have had their roots here, too. 

And most profoundly, the decision to return to Los Angeles—to break up the Pascal marriage and to take gallant responsibility for the older, infirm Cissy until death did they part—must have been made in Europe. 

Perhaps he decided in the enlisted men’s infirmary in late October, returning to consciousness after days of delirium, and realizing that no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t going to die young and heroic on a foreign shore. 

There was something bigger waiting for him among the palm trees and the oil seeps. So Raymond Chandler went home.

Written on the occasion of the writer’s 129th birthday, at El Sereno, Los Angeles

Friday, February 3, 2017

Kim Cooper on the Secret Library Podcast: weird crime, Raymond Chandler, archives & induced hallucinations

I was honored when Caroline Donahue recently invited me to appear on her literary podcast, The Secret Library, a congenial place where writers can let their hair down for an audience of readers and fellow scribes. 

Episode 36 is out now, featuring a wide-ranging conversation about using historic crimes and personalities in fiction, the subscription publishing model, research methods, channeling the voices of Raymond Chandler and his friends through induced hallucinations, historic preservation, the weird side of Los Angeles and more.

Give a listen on the podcast page or over on iTunes.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Presenting: How To Find Old Los Angeles, a guidebook to the city that was... and still is!

I'm pleased to announce the release of How To Find Old Los Angeles, my second title from Herb Lester, the stylish London-based publishers of travel guides and folding maps too pretty to make notes on. Included are 153 historic places that will delight any seeker of cool, old Los Angeles.

Two years ago, I had the great honor to be asked to write the text for Paul Rogers' fold-out Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angeles. Like the map and my novel The Kept Girl (also with artwork by Paul Rogers), How To Find Old Los Angeles is available as a souvenir when you join us for an Esotouric bus adventure, or from Esotouric by mail. You can also find it wherever fine paperback books are sold, on Amazon or the bookstore supporting Bookshop site and direct from Herb Lester.

From the introduction: Los Angeles, its critics say, has no more respect for its past than for an empty paper cup. Like most digs aimed at the Big Orange, this simply isn’t true. All across its 503 square miles and 88 municipalities, you can find thriving historic establishments, dishing out chili dogs and cheesecakes, sidecars and self-realization, all with a heaping side of Southern California soul. This book is intended as a pocket guide to worthy pockets of old Los Angeles commerce and culture, from La Puente to La Cienega, Pacific Coast Highway to Hollywood Boulevard. It includes bakeries, bars, bookshops, bowling alleys and many fine things that don't begin with the letter B. Some of these iconic sites are featured on my Esotouric bus tours; others are personal favorites. Each one is a stamp in the informal passport of the true Angeleno.

To get your copy: click here, or join us on the bus.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Celebrating Raymond Chandler's 128th birthday with a noir book and bus tour sale

On July 23, 1888, Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago, a smart, sensitive kid dealt a strange deck that would, in time, make him the great chronicler of the dark side of the California dream.

Join me in celebrating the master's 128th birthday with a week-long sale on noirish things that you can enjoy in person or in the privacy of your own head.

From July 23-29, 2016:

  • Take $12.80* off on tickets on Esotouric's July 30 edition of the Raymond Chandler's L.A. bus tour with the discount code redwind
  • Take $12.80* off on tickets on Esotouric's The Birth of Noir bus tour on 9/10 with the discount code haytruck
  • The Kindle edition of my mystery novel The Kept Girl, starring the young Chandler on the trail of a murderous cult of angel worshippers, is on sale starting at 99¢. Use the discount code gimlet for $5 off the paperback edition. Read Chapter One to get a taste, and see some reviews here. I hope you'll take advantage of the Raymond Chandler birthday sale--and please, tell a noir-loving friend.

* Restrictions: These discount codes expire at midnight, 7/29. Limit four tickets per purchaser, but you may share the codes with friends. This discount can only be used on the tours listed above; if you need to reschedule, you may apply what you paid towards a full-priced ticket on a later regularly scheduled tour date. Discount cannot be combined with any other offer. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Noir scribes canoodle at the 37th Annual Los Angeles Vintage Paperback Show

It was a packed house at the Glendale Civic Auditorium on April 3 as collectors of pulp fiction, vintage paperbacks, weird art and exploitation converged for the annual Vintage Paperback Show.

Up on the author table,  between signing copies of their books and anthologies, two writers whose beat is the noir side of Los Angeles now (Denise Hamilton) and then (Kim Cooper) shared notes on vintage perfume, bizarre translation errors and and pleasures of the vendor tables.

Put the Vintage Paperback Show on your calendar; it's a blast!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Kept Girl Kept Days book sale - Kindle and Paperback editions

When I plotted The Kept Girl, I chose to set the action over seven sweltering summer days in late August/early September, 1929.

To commemorate the second occurrence of this literary anniversary since publication, the Kindle edition will be deeply discounted on Amazon, starting, just as the book does, on the morning of August 29 at 99 cents and running through September 4, when the Great Eleven cult's secrets are revealed and the price reverts back to $5.99 retail around the witching hour. (UK visitors, click here.)

Not a Kindle user? Save $5 off the paperback in the Esotouric Shop with the discount code "chandlerinlove".

Read Chapter One to get a taste, and see some reviews here. I hope you'll take advantage of the Kept Days Sale--and please, tell a book-loving friend.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Conjurer's Guide to Lost Los Angeles

Bank of Italy lobby, 1923
When writing The Kept Girl, I drew on historic photographs and postcards as source material for many locations that couldn't easily be visited. For the old Red Sandstone Courthouse is long demolished, as is the Goodfellow's Grotto seafood house and the saltwater plunge on the Ventura shore.  

For the scenes set in the 1923 Bank of Italy building, where Raymond Chandler worked as an oil company executive in the Dabney Syndicate, I consulted vintage photos as well as effusive trade journal descriptions of the myriad gorgeous details included in the lobby and offices.

While the building itself survives at the corner of 7th and Olive Streets in Downtown Los Angeles, it has long been in the possession of a landlord who sees historic landmarks not as gems to be polished, but as undervalued assets to be hoarded until the market swings just so. 

And so I could stand on the sidewalk outside the tightly locked hulk, peering up at the elegant marble columns and massive bronze doors -- both with big chunks missing -- trying to ignore the stench of human urine and pigeon guano, imagining how beautiful it all once was. 

But the location of the stairs and the elevators, the sound of footsteps across the double-height lobby, the colors of the polychromed metalwork--these all had to be invented. And that is what I did.

From Chapter Two of The Kept Girl

     At Seventh Street he swung right, through massive columns framing the tall bronze doors of the Bank of Italy. The lobby was cool and dark, suffused with the clean smell of capital. Tellers stood behind wrought iron screens, their edges burnished with gold leaf and flashes of red, green and blue. Above, deep recesses in the wooden ceiling glowed with pigment. The bank was busy, but as if in deference to the chapel-like space, no customer raised his voice above a whisper. 
  A signpost reading LADIES BANKING—MEZZANINE stood near the wide stair. At the back of the room, a stand of four ornate elevators waited to ferry patrons to the business suites above. Tom stepped into the only open one. 
  “Your destination, officer?” The dapper attendant was a cripple, perched on his stool beside the big wheel. He was an old man with youthful skin that rarely saw daylight, and the patient demeanor of one whose journey never varied. 
  “12th floor, Dabney Oil.” 
  If he found anything unusual in a rumpled beat cop asking for a ride to the top, the attendant gave no sign. With two smooth motions he closed the cage and sent the capsule rolling smoothly upward. They passed a moment in discrete silence before Tom was ushered gracefully into a long hall. Each of the wooden office doors led to some division of the Dabney Oil Syndicate; between them glowered portraits of anonymous burghers who’d made their fortunes centuries before, on wheat, slaves, silk or hardwood. The hall was quiet, and he instinctively tried to hush his steps over the rose pink marble path. 
Room 1208 was labeled in crisp golden letters: South Basin Oil Co. / R.T. Chandler—Vice President. Muriel ushered him in before his second rap. Ray looked up from behind his desk with a grin. 
“Tom! Summer morning in Los Angeles is absolutely glorious. Why didn’t anyone tell me? Sit, sit. Muriel, bring tea!”
*  *  *

So how wonderful it was to read in today's Los Angeles Times that the building has finally been sold, to a hotel developer with a track record of bringing neglected old buildings back into the light. It will be a few years yet, but some day, I'll walk right through those magnificent doors and up to the bar, where I'll order a proper gin gimlet, in honor of Mr. Raymond Chandler.