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A Sense of Place by Mark Smith

"It was getting dark outside now. The rushing sound of the traffic had died a little and the air from the open window, not yet cool from the night, had that tired end-of-the-day smell of dust, automobile exhaust, sun-light rising from hot walls and sidewalks, the remote smell of food in a thousand restaurants, and perhaps, drifting down from the residential hills above Hollywood--if you had a nose like a hunting dog -- a touch of that peculiar tomcat smell that eucalyptus trees give off in warm weather."

Raymond Chandler, "The High Window" (chap. 14)

I want to write like Raymond Chandler. I want to be able to evoke a sense of place and time which lasts, and reveals what it is like to actually live there, and what the effect of living in that place is on a person who lives there. How do our surroundings shape our character? Those of us who live in Northern Michigan tend to like it, and some of us can get quite smug about it. But what is it that defines our lives here?

Fifty-seven years have passed since Chandler wrote "The High Window", and the sights and sounds of Philip Marlowe's L.A. have remained preserved and vital, certainly as potent as anything Marcel Proust ever managed to create. For many years Chandler has been recognized as one of literature's quirkiest talents, often imitated, never equaled - a "slumming angel", writing with the intensity of a prophet and the clarity of pure sensory recall. Through his fictional alter-ego, Marlowe, Chandler created a powerful evocation of place and its effect on character. Chandler's relationship to Marlowe is, in itself, fascinating, but his emphasis on the relationship of place to character is even more dazzling.

Marlowe is a loner, relying on his own intuitive sense of things to survive. If we may deduce anything about Chandler through Marlowe, we may become aware of the over-sensitive descriptive passages like this one:

"The wind had risen and had a dry taut feeling, tossing the tops of trees, and making the swung arc light up the side street cast shadows like crawling lava."
(chap.14)

or this:

"The wind seemed to have risen again. It thumped at the north window and there was a heavy slow pounding noise on the wall of the building, like a thick wire banging the stucco between insulators."
(chap. 18)

There is a muscularity and a tension to this kind of writing, a sort of formulaic refrain of a man on edge, preternaturally aware of the elements, and not at ease. Because we see through his eyes, there is no description of Marlowe. Three times throughout the book Marlowe surprises himself in a mirror, which is the only time the reader gets any kind of description of him. It is almost as if Chandler sees himself, briefly, and is startled. Here Marlowe is investigating the scene of a murder and is just about to discover the body:

"A square room with a brown carpet, very little furniture and that not inviting. The wall bed with the usual distorting mirror faced me as I opened the door and made me look like a two-time loser sneaking home from a reefer party."
(chap. 8)

Another time Marlowe describes his ghostly face in the mirror of a darkened room. He surprises himself, and seems shocked at the image. Marlowe finishes the book on a self-deprecating note, as he looks in the kitchen mirror and mocks his own pretensions to intellect. Things have worked out right for him, but he doesn't gloat, can't take credit, and feels humility. Do I see the face of Chandler here?

Marlowe is an educated man, a chess player, and a pipe smoker. Like Hamlet, he is simply smarter than anyone else. But like Hamlet too, he is also unsure. He would like to get involved, but he knows too much to be anyone's chum.

Chandler himself was born in Chicago, but grew up in England, attending Dulwich College, before getting involved in World War I, and eventually returning to the U.S. and settling in California. He became the director of a number of independent oil companies, which eventually went bust in the depression, forcing him to give up his business career and take up writing. He was 45 when he turned finally to fiction! Chandler's class consciousness would have been keenly felt, and his observations of L.A.'s social hierarchies are what makes his books so unique, even among crime writers. Chandler was the alien chameleon, able to see with clarity and capture every detail.

If you had only relied on Humphrey Bogart's version of Marlowe, you might be Detective Talesexcused for missing out on Marlowe's social conscience. "The High Window" is a stunning evocation of place, but it is also a persistent indictment of the way the privileged classes have shaped the city to their needs:

"Stillwood crescent drive curved leisurely north from Sunset Boulevard, well beyond the Bel-Air Country Club golf course. The road was lined with walled and fenced estates. Some had high walls, some had low walls, some had ornamental iron fences, some were a bit old-fashioned and got along with tall hedges. The street had no sidewalk. Nobody walked in that neighborhood, not even the mailman."
(chap 5)

Chandler's repetitive use of the phrase "some had.." serves to emphasize the fact of conformity and of exclusion-- they came in all varieties, but everybody had walls. He also gently criticizes car culture, at a time when it was probably not fashionable or even prevalent. What sort of neighborhood would have no sidewalks?

On the one hand, then, you have Pasadena, lawn sprinklers, terra-cotta tile roofs, "little painted Negroes in riding caps," and the kind of corruption which only money, and fences, can hide. On the other hand you have neighborhoods like Toberman Street where "the entrances to the downstairs flats were at right angles facing each other across the width of the porch ... in a neighborhood like that there is always an expert window peeker." (chap. 26) No moralizing, no editorializing, and certainly no nostalgia - just the bald descriptive power of clear writing brings out the effect of place on character. In Toberman Street you don't get away with as much as you do in Pasadena. You can't, because your neighbors are watching.

The consequences of urban flight also play out in "The High Window". On the one hand you have the almost whimsical description of Escamillo Drive, home of Roger Vannier, playboy-cad, and villain:

"Escamillo Drive made three jogs in four blocks, for no reason that I could see. It was very narrow, averaged about five houses to a block and was overhung by a section of shaggy brown foothill on which nothing lived at this season except sage and manzanita. In its fifth and last block, Escamillo Drive did a neat little curve to the left, hit the base of the hill hard, and died without a whimper. In this last block were three houses, two on the opposite entering corners, one at the dead end. This was Vannier's....As a love nest the place had its points, but as a residence for a blackmailer I didn't give it very high marks. Sudden deaths can come to you anywhere, but Vannier had made it too easy."
(chap. 29)

I can think of no more comprehensive indictment of Vannier's foolishness than Marlowe's sarcastic description of his street. In effect, Vannier died because he lived in the wrong kind of place. His activities as a crook were not consistent with his upwardly mobile aspirations to upmarket suburbia. Vannier lives in an exclusive subdivision, with nonsensical traffic flow and complete disregard for geographic contingencies. In Northern Michigan the place would have a name such as "Trout Brook Commons" or "Apple Tree Court". Vannier's character is rootless and unconnected, much as his "neighborhood", which seems to have sprung out of money, unconnected to community. In a way he belongs in this new environment, but he also pays the price for the unthinking lifestyle.

On the other hand, you have Bunker Hill, a place with former glory, down at heel now, and sad:

"Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles."
(chap. 8)

I mean, does anybody write better than Chandler? Bunker Hill is where elephants go to die. It's what's left when the rich move out. Cheap varnish, cracked shoes stretched into the sun, faces like lost battles -- Chandler's evocation of place and character is never surer. Where we live is tied to who we are. On the long front porches of Bunker Hill the old men sit and watch the world which has passed them by. F. Scott Fitzgerald did this contrast between rich and poor so beautifully in "The Great Gatsby" when he described the drab and colorless "valley of ashes", where life's losers live, then describe the colorful world of Gatsby's party. Character springs from place. But Chandler just did it, without the fanfare. Was he even aware? Sure, on some level. Are we aware? I wonder.

My last example of Chandler's mastery of place is a description of the exclusive "Idle Valley Club" , an early instance of one of the many "gated communities" which have recently become so much a feature of our fruited plain. Marlowe is at the gate:

"'About a mile ahead on the right, Mr. Marlowe.'
I looked at the gun strapped to his hip, the special badge pinned to his shirt. 'And they call this a democracy,' I said....
He looked behind him and then spat on the ground.
'The trouble with revolutions,' he said, 'is that they get in the hands of the wrong people.'
'Check,' I said.
'On the other hand,' he said, 'could they be any wronger than the bunch of rich phonies that live around here?'
'Maybe you'll be living in here yourself someday,' I said.
He spat again. 'I wouldn't live in here if they paid me fifty thousand a year and let me sleep in chiffon pajamas with a string of matched pearls around my neck.' ...

Around the curve the whole valley spread out before me. A thousand white houses built up and down the hills, ten thousand lighted windows and the stars hanging down over them politely, not getting too close, on account of the patrol."

(chap.17)

Chandler the loner, the standoffish bankrupt, struggling to pay the bills by writing stories -- the man who fought in the war and lived on both sides of the ocean, and finally settled in a place where the bounties of "God's Country" were divvied up unevenly, based on your daddy's money and the house it would buy for you -- would he want any part of it? Not a chance. Give me reality any day.

Copyright 1999 Manitou Publishing Co. & Mark Smith • All Rights Reserved.

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