Tour Casts New Light on Raymond Chandler’s Old L.A.
* A Minnesota couple trace the steps of the novelist’s best-known character.
April 4, 2004
By Erika Hayasaki, Times Staff Writer
Olson stood in the lobby of the Oviatt Building on Olive Street
downtown on Saturday, beneath the ceilings adorned with triangular
glass, and read a passage from the Raymond Chandler novel "The Lady in
the Lake," in which he described this very setting.
sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber
blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a
hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was
watching the work and looking as if it were breaking his heart," she
read, explaining that the structure was called the Treloar Building in
"The images he’s able to evoke of Los Angeles and the
past are powerful, maybe more powerful than actually seeing it in
reality," said Olson, who led eight people on a walking tour of
settings for Chandler’s books.
Olson and her husband, Brian,
were in town — from Minnesota of all places — to lead tours based on
their new guide, "Tailing Philip Marlowe."
guide, available at Caravan Books on Grand Avenue, points out sites
mentioned in Chandler’s books, whose best-known character was private
detective Philip Marlowe.
Olson said she admires Chandler’s work
because of his poignant storytelling, language and dialogue. He is
studied along with great poets, writers and essayists, she said. Many
consider him to be one of Los Angeles’ quintessential writers, who
weaved real places, people and events into his fiction, a strength that
inspired fellow mystery writer Ross MacDonald to write: "Chandler wrote
like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los
Angeles with a romantic presence."
For several decades, Olson,
an English teacher, and her husband, who works for the city of
Minneapolis, have been enchanted by Chandler’s descriptions of Los
Angeles, like the steps of City Hall, where Marlowe lighted a cigarette
as the cold wind blew in "Trouble Is My Business." Then there was the
Bradbury Building on South Broadway about which Chandler wrote: "The
dark narrow lobby was as dirty as a chicken yard" in "The High Window,"
in which the structure was called the Belfont Building.
1/2-hour tour began at the Oviatt Building and continued toward the Los
Angeles Public Library, which Chandler mentioned in "The Long Goodbye."
group headed to Bunker Hill, stopping at the top of the mothballed
Angels Flight cable trolley, which Chandler described in "The High
The group hiked to the 2nd Street tunnel, which
Chandler compared to the barrel of a gun in "The Big Sleep": "The
muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel."
the couple visited Los Angeles three years ago, they wanted to explore
places mentioned in the novels, which captured the city in the 1930s
and ’40s. But they said they could not find a guide. So they returned
home and combed through all of Chandler’s stories, flagging
descriptions of settings with Post-it notes.
Then the Olsons
visited Los Angeles again, searching for the sites, and spent hours in
the library researching the city’s architectural history.
couple put together the 112-page guidebook with the help of family
members and a printer in Fargo, N.D., thinking they could use the books
as Christmas gifts.
"We did it to have fun together," Bonnie Olson said. "We had no idea it was going to be such a niche."
native Heath Ryan, 32, a fan of Chandler’s book "Playback," moved to
Los Angeles three years ago. He said he already had an idea of what the
city was like from Chandler’s descriptions.
"You get here and feel almost familiar with this place, even though you have never been here," Ryan said.
Ray Chin, 32, a downtown resident, said Chandler’s work has helped him understand how the city has evolved.
isn’t so much the images of the city," Chin said. "It’s the historical
knowledge he gives about the city. It’s fascinating to see all of the
On Saturday, those on the tour hiked up to Bunker
Hill, where they rested on rows of marble benches in a courtyard
overlooking a pond, surrounded by towering skyscrapers. The outdoor
cafe tables were mostly empty, and a hair salon was closed. Beneath the
courtyard, homeless men and women slept on the grass, and the stairs
smelled like urine.
Many years ago, Chandler described the
setting, in "The High Window," like this: "Bunker is old town, lost
town, shabby town, crook town…. Out of the apartment houses come
women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with
pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the
cupped hand that shield the match flame; worn intellectuals with
cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces
and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers."
Olson read that
passage and her husband explained that this was the neighborhood where
Marlowe found a dead body in an apartment.
"It was a romantic
time, a different time," Ryan said. "There were no freeways. It was the
center of the city. Now it feels a bit dead."
Note: To mark the 50th anniversary of Raymond Chandler’s death, the
Daily Mirror is revisiting some of The Times’ stories about his life and
influence. We invite the Daily Mirror’s readers to share their thoughts.