Farewell my lovely City of Angels

Sleazy low-lifes and drop-dead society dames rub shoulders in Raymond Chandler's work. LA would still suit them, says William Cook
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

"To write about a place," wrote Raymond Chandler, "you have to love it, or hate it, or do both by turns." And by turns, Chandler loved and hated Los Angeles. America's poet laureate of crime was born in Chicago and educated at Dulwich College in south London, but he spent his working life in LA. His love-hate relationship with this mesmeric metropolis formed the backdrop to his hard-boiled, bittersweet novels.

Chandler only ever wrote two stories set outside this "bright and dismal land", and it's impossible to picture his world-weary hero and alter ego, Philip Marlowe, in any other setting. Without LA there'd be no Marlowe, the private detective who turned pulp fiction into an art form. "Rich and vigorous and full of pride," wrote Chandler. "Lost and beaten and full of emptiness." He could have been writing about Marlowe, or himself, but he was writing about LA. And although it's 40 years since he died, his LA is still out there, and so is Marlowe's.

Chandler lived in LA from his twenties until his fifties, but he never spent long in one place. He rented dozens of different properties. Even when he earned big money, first in the oil business and later from his writing, his accommodation remained modest. No 700 Gramercy Place is an anonymous apartment block, while 1040 Havenhurst Drive and 6320 Drexel Avenue are both standard suburban bungalows – even though he worked at Paramount Studios while he lived on Havenhurst, and was paying $50,000 a year in income tax by the time he left Drexel.

After these perfunctory addresses, 5555 Melrose Avenue is an oasis of sophistication. This is Paramount, the only studio still in Hollywood, where Chandler worked with Billy Wilder on their noir classic, Double Indemnity. A miniature movie village, clustered around a street set that features every conceivable style of architecture and where screen stars travel by golf buggy, it seems more like an exclusive holiday complex than one of the world's busiest film factories.

The Hollywood haunt with most film-noir ambience is the Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard – a vintage American diner, like a scene from a painting by Edward Hopper. Opened in 1919, six years after Chandler arrived in LA, it's Hollywood's oldest restaurant, and the menu has hardly changed since the Twenties, when you could buy steak and coffee for 90 cents. Chandler wasn't the only writer who ate here. Other diners included Fitzgerald and Hemingway. However, some of the most atmospheric sites aren't from Chandler's life, but from his books, and the best place to start looking is Downtown.

City Hall, a handsome Art Deco monument to American prosperity, features in one of Chandler's earliest stories, Trouble Is My Business. Across the street is the LA Times Building, another Art Deco pile, and home to the only newspaper to give Chandler's first novel, The Big Sleep, a decent review. The Spanish-style Union Station stars in Chandler's final novel, Playback.

The shortest railway in the world is Angel's Flight, the "funny little funicular" from Chandler's short story, The King In Yellow. Its lopsided carriages crawl up Bunker Hill, barely a hundred yards from foot to summit. At the top is LA's Museum of Contemporary Art, where Robert Frank's melancholy photographs capture the downbeat chic of Chandler's LA stories. There are more Chandleresque photos at the nearby Museum of Neon Art, where an exhibition by John Swope commemorates this conurbation's luminous landmarks, some long gone, others still shining bright. "The lights were wonderful," says Marlowe, looking out across LA, in The Little Sister. "There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights." This display, round the corner from the bohemian Figueroa Hotel, is the next best thing.

Some of the most striking Marlowe relics are actually old office blocks. The wrought-iron Bradbury Building makes a brief appearance in The High Window, while the gleaming glass-and-metal Oviatt plays a cameo role in The Lady in the Lake. Its luxurious Rex restaurant is a polished wooden period piece where Humphrey Bogart would have felt at home. Bogart's Marlowe in The Big Sleep movie transformed Chandler from jobbing hack into international celebrity, and LA's best Art Deco building, Bullocks, has a walk-on part in Chandler's novel. It used to be a department store. Today, it's a law library. You need an appointment to step inside, but even the foyer is stunning.

Far from the hectic city centre, hidden behind high walls and hedges, lurk the estates where Marlowe's nouveaux riches clients lived. Greystone Mansion, built in 1925 by oil magnate Edward Doheny, is a fair match for General Sternwood's villa in The Big Sleep. This faux manor house isn't open to visitors, but you can still sneak a fine view from the surrounding public park. Among the "old houses and old money" of the leafy satellite of Pasadena, the Huntington Hotel would make a perfect hideaway for one of Marlowe's affluent femmes fatales. This tranquil fin-de-siècle spa, named after railway tycoon Henry Huntington, is in Oak Knoll, a high-life location in The High Window.

Chandler's high life ended suddenly, in 1932. Too drunk to hold down a day job, he was fired from his post as vice president of an oil company. Unemployed, with no prospects, he decided to become a writer. He was 44. He moved to Santa Monica, and it was here, where America ends and the Pacific starts, that he honed the craft that made him famous. Chandler moved to Santa Monica because it was cheap. Today, it's one of LA's trendiest districts, and the enclave he christened Bay City has retreated into fiction. Yet as you stand on Santa Monica Pier with the sea behind you, looking up at the mountains that surround LA, you realise this was the perfect place for Chandler to write. Beyond the confines of the big city, yet still close enough to smell it, he could create a megalopolis that was half reportage and half myth. And in the end, he came to the conclusion that the town he once called a "neon slum" with all the personality of a paper cup was "the centre of civilisation – if there is any left."

William Cook travelled as a guest of British Airways, the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa, and the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau