This was an article I wrote for the May 2008 issue of Crimespree Magazine.
It started as an idea. My idol, Raymond Chandler, spent a lot of time in my hometown of Los Angeles. He lived in five different locations in L.A. alone. But the only house he purchased was situated in La Jolla about an hour away from where I currently live in the Inland Empire. His gravesite was there as well. I’d start in La Jolla, then, see a few sites, let the man’s success and talent rub off on me a bit. Easy.
But what I didn’t realize was how much the experience would get under my skin.
My first published novel will be released in November. Veil of Lies; A Medieval Noir. You read that right. Medieval Noir. It isn’t just a name. It’s a new subgenre invented by yours truly. What is the saying? If you can’t find the books out there you want to read, write them? That’s me. Blending my favorite genres, medieval mystery with noir, hard-boiled stuff, pulp. Dark, edgy, moody. It works. But at the launch of my career as a novelist, I needed all the help I could get. Short of channeling the man’s ghost, I decided to go on a journey to see the places he lived...and the spot that became his final resting place.
San Diego was closer, so I went out to La Jolla first. It’s a long, slow drive down the I-15 from my house in the Inland Empire. I was driving from what was expected to be a hot day in the eighties to the cooler climes of San Diego county. A perfect southern California day. The sun shined along the grey curving ribbon of freeway as I passed avocado groves climbing up the slopes on one side and sparkling off of the recently watered fairways of golf courses on the other. It was an hour’s worth of driving to get to my friend Marie’s house in Pacific Beach where we would begin this quest together.
We assembled our maps, hopped in my car, and wended our way through the narrow streets of the Rock Bird area, passing blond boys with surfboards tucked under their arms and girls with more tan than clothes. We were in La Jolla, a rich man’s paradise of sun and surf along rocky cliff fronts. It was still an upscale area when Raymond Chandler bought his first house here at 6005 Camino de la Costa in 1946. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Best begin at the beginning.
Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago in 1888. A child of divorce, he moved with his mother to England seven years later. He grew up to be quite the continental, studying in Paris, Germany, and other places. He became a British subject, got a job in civil service and briefly as a newspaper reporter. In 1912, he came back to the U.S. and moved to California, first to San Francisco and then in and around Los Angeles. He did a brief stint in World War I with the Canadian army before he returned to L.A. after it was all over. He had an affair with a married woman, Cissy Pascal, but she got a divorce and married him. She was 18 years older than Chandler, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. By this time he became vice-president of the Dabney Oil Syndicate after his rise from bookkeeper, but it didn’t last. Boozing and going awol took its toll and he was given the boot.
In the thirties he tried his hand at short stories and found success with Black Mask Magazine and Dime Detective. He was living in La Jolla at the end of 1939 but he soon left it for Arcadia, California. A string of houses and a string of hits sold to Hollywood followed: Pacific Palisades and Farewell, My Lovely; Brentwood Heights and High Window; Idyllwild and The Big Sleep. There was an Oscar nomination for his work on The Blue Dahlia, and now he was in La Jolla again.
In 1954, Cissy Chandler died. The La Jolla house held too many memories. He drank heavily, attempted suicide, and finally sold the La Jolla house and returned to England to live for a while. In 1956, he was back in La Jolla only a few neighborhoods away from the original house and took up residence in an apartment on Neptune Place. The successes kept on coming but the drinking didn’t stop. He accepted the presidency of the Mystery Writers of America, but soon thereafter he succumbed to pneumonia and died on March 26, 1959, seventeen months before I am born. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego.
There’s a lot left out, a lot left unsaid. You need a book for all that. There are a lot of whys and wherefores in a book; motivations. For instance, was Cissy the woman who replaced his mother? Did she control his life or help him keep it together? Was she a driving force? Was it him? Why was he such a rolling stone? Maybe there are clues in the man’s stories. Wayward women and tough guys. But was he all that tough?
We haven’t got much in common, Chandler and me. An abiding interest in England, divorced parents, newspaper work. That doesn’t add up to much. There had to be more.
Fast forward again to La Jolla. I drive down the winding streets of perfectly landscaped yards and houses way out of my league.
At a corner where the street opens out to a vista of crashing waves and rocky tide pools, we see it.
It’s a rambling structure, a California ranch home gone nuts. Part of it ambles back up the hilly road while the rest lounges lazily along Camino de la Costa. A man in a t-shirt and shorts is staining one of the raw wood window frames with a paint brush. The house is stuccoed in a deep fawn, the kind of darker color the decorators like nowadays for houses. Some of the windows are probably the original size—you can tell from the bathroom window, a tall narrow thing with stained mullions—but I wonder if the picture window at the front was original. Or the two little studios perched atop the flat roof, one on either tips of the house like bookends. The landscaping is picture perfect. The door is wide open.
I snap a few pictures as we wander in front of it, staring at the house. I don’t know what to think. I like to visit historical places to get a feel for the people who used to inhabit it, perhaps sense something of that wayward past, grasp it, and splash it onto the page for myself. But this house has been redone, reworked. I can’t help but think “desecrated”, but that thought is decidedly unfair. After all, nothing stays static in southern California. Not even the ground. Why should the subsequent owners some 52 years ago have kept it pristine like a shrine? Maybe they never even heard of Raymond Chandler, though it is hard to fathom such a thing.
My friend and I wander toward the cliff with its caution tape and warnings that the ground is “Unstable!” “Keep Away!” We skirt past oblivious lovers staring into the vista of sparkling water, white foam, and shoreline planted with expensive houses. No one seems to be at home, sitting out on their back decks or in their verbena-laced gardens. Perhaps they stand in their air-conditioned living rooms staring out alone from their picture windows, but it is a Friday afternoon, and most likely they are working hard to rake in more of that cash needed to afford their cliff house. It takes a lot of mud and spit for a mud swallow to make a nest. These cliff dwellers need a lot of mud.
We walked carefully down the steep concrete steps, gripping its rusty railing. I can’t help but think that the rocky tide pools and cliff caves would make a great place to find a body. A perfect California day at the beach ruined by the bloated remains of some scantily clad woman, kelp clinging to her sun-bleached hair. Or maybe some gang-banger who partied with the wrong guys and ended up with a bullet through the bandana wound tight and wet round his head.
These are my musings.
When we head back up the hill, I look at the house afresh and some passer-by mentions that they think the Chandler house is for sale. Really? Brilliant. I’ll just write a check. You think they’ll give me a 700 year mortgage?
But then the thought occurs. If it’s empty, maybe we can go inside. We talk to the man with the paintbrush—Scott—and he tells us, yes, the house is for sale. There’s a plaque in the front of the house explaining that the house belonged to Chandler and he says that the footprint of the house as well as the writer’s office was kept pretty much the same. A beat. He asks if we want to come in.
Up the front steps and we walk into a low-ceilinged space of new diagonally set African mahogany wood floors. I glance back at the picture window from the right direction this time and get the full view of the ocean looking like the best HD big screen there is.
The kitchen is modest with all new appointments. There is one seller sheet remaining. “The seller will entertain offers between 6,200,000 and 6,750,876.” Where was my checkbook again? It’s 4600 square feet of hallways and modestly sized bedrooms (six) with 6.5 baths.
“I can’t let you wander around,” says Scott. But he knows all we really want is to see the office. He leads us there down a hallway and around a corner. Tucked into the back of the house with a window overlooking a garden, this is it. They’ve left the built-in cupboards alone with their rounded doors and exposed plywood edges. On the bookshelf are a few copies of his books, left there, no doubt, for prospective buyers. A simple room with two windows opposite each other. There is a half-bath now with all the modern tile and fixtures that I suspect was originally a closet. It has that look about it.
We stand in the presence of greatness, I suppose, and I drink it in, straining my ears for distant echoes, but I can’t hear the past in the empty house. I am excited, though. I know it is a fluke that I was let in here. It was my lucky day.
We linger as long as we can and then, so that Scott can get back to work, we leave the house, staying a while by the plaque outside. It is time to move on to our other destination. The apartment Chandler moved to not too far away when his beloved wife died. His last residence before his plot at Mount Hope. We’ll see that today, too.
Back in the car and we are on our way down streets designed for few cars and even those would have been of the model-T variety. By the time many of these houses and apartments were built, however, cars had morphed into the bulging Detroit steel of Buicks and Packards. They’d still have to creep almost single file along this route; one side is the ice-plant draped cliffs overlooking the beach below and the other the houses staring mournfully into the horizon with picture window eyes. There were a lot of older apartments still along Neptune Place and I had hopes that Chandler’s apartment house might have been spared the renovators hand. No such luck. Once we got to the 6000 block each place had been extensively redone or just plain bulldozed and rebuilt. But it was even worse when we got to 6925 Neptune Place. We got out and walked, looking for it. 6921, 6927, 6933...What the—? We were slowly growing to the conclusion that the apartment building must have been situated in the back but had been swallowed up by contractors and builders to make way for the massive houses that shoved against each other, competing for space amid the ice plant. It was gone. Along with 6929, 30, and 31, to that oblivion of absorbed real estate, part of that ever-changing coastline that is California. It was disappointing. We stood for a while and looked out at the ocean in quiet disbelief. A tragedy.
The afternoon was getting on. Time to head on over to Mount Hope Cemetery, the last stop on Chandler’s—and our—quest. We delved into the heart of San Diego and headed east, inland. When Raymond Chandler was struck down in March of 1959 with pneumonia he was sent to the Scripp’s Clinic in La Jolla. He never left it alive.
Mount Hope was an old cemetery, established in 1869. A veritable Who’s Who of San Diego’s dead is resting beneath its hills of grass: Alonzo Erastus Horton, San Diego land mogul; Elisha Babcock, builder of the famous Hotel del Coronado and also it’s most famous ghost is buried there, Kate Morgan; Sam Brannan an early Mormon pioneer and member of San Francisco’s first city council; and Alta M. Hulett, America’s first female attorney.
We made our way up Market Street and up over the hills until we passed through a rather humble gate. We arrived ten of four and the gates closed at four. We needed to get a move on. But where to find him? There were no information kiosks but on our left was an innocuous building built in the sixties and looking like a misplaced track home. We parked and went inside. The employees were happy to give us a map. It was just up the road.
Back in the car we found the right area, got out, and started counting graves. The bigger monuments and head stones were near the front of the cemetery. Where we were lay countless plaques laid out like tiles. At first we couldn’t find him, but with some re-working of the counting...there he was.
A dark stone plaque: “In Loving Memory, Raymond Thornton Chandler, Author, July 23, 1883 – Mar 26, 1959.” He would have been pleased by the brevity. I stood and looked at it for a while and then I sat and touched the sun-warmed stone. “Sorry I didn’t think to bring you anything, Mr. Chandler,” I told him, thinking that a drink shared between us might have been a nice touch. But then again, maybe not. No doubt the booze contributed to the pneumonia that got him planted in front of me. Instead, I asked for a little help, a little magic to launch my career. I felt the rough texture of the carved letters under my fingertips. But only a few ants appeared as I cleared away some of the overgrowing grass. No voices from beyond...except that of a park employee chasing us out since the gates were now closed.
I brushed the grass from my jeans and stood. “I’ll be back, Ray,” I told him. I breathed in the silent air of Mount Hope. Mount Hope. Well, that’s a start.