Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles is a parched, polluted paradise, where flora and fauna are being destroyed by urban sprawl. As the Californian drought continues, Rhys Griffiths examines an early, and unlikely, environmentalist

Rhys Griffiths
Friday 29 May 2015 07:37
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk

The wise man, as Biblical lore has it, built his house on the rock, his foolish compatriot on the sand – guidance that mankind has ignored for millennia. In the late 19th century, the pioneers, or developers, or "boosters" who founded and promoted Los Angeles as a new "instant city" were among those to lay substantial foundations in what was essentially sand. Not on a desert, exactly – that myth's been debunked – but perilously close to one, and on the shore of an undrinkable ocean.

Today, it's not an excess of water – as in the scriptures and children's song – that threatens Southern California, but a scarcity of it. The state is considering implementing desalination centres. As has been remarked in Europe, the city defines itself against its medieval origins; American metropolises define themselves against the wilderness. In John Fante's 1939 LA novel, Ask the Dust, his alter ego, Arturo Bandini, revels in his adopted home's mastery of nature: "This great city, these mighty pavements and proud buildings, they were the voice of my America. From sand and cactus we Americans had carved an empire."

The landscape of that empire has proven to be a fecund source for artists. Paintings by the San Francisco Bay Area's Richard Diebenkorn, whose first UK retrospective is currently showing at the Royal Academy in London, have been described as "among the best visual evocations of Los Angeles there are". Diebenkorn's work has been compared with the pure abstraction of Piet Mondrian, but his most abstract series, "Ocean Park", employs the same visual language as his figurative paintings – a language that resembles, in the least demeaning way possible, paint-by-number landscapes. Large monochrome sections of the canvas pertain to natural elements. The grass is green, the ocean is blue, the sand is yellow. In Cityscape #1 (1963) the sand is seeping through.

The painting calls to mind a passage in another Los Angeles-based work, Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940), in which his PI, Philip Marlowe, visits a would-be interrogatee: "1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough looking palm tree."

For many, Chandler is siloed as a crime writer – a designation he believed to be "slightly below assault". Few would consider him a writer concerned with the environment or, even more, as a proponent of ecocriticism. But should we?

W H Auden is often credited for rescuing Chandler from pulp obscurity with his essay "The Guilty Vicarage". For Auden, Chandler wrote "serious studies of a criminal milieu, the great wrong place"; his works stood opposed to thrillers set in an "Eden-like" scenario against which we witness the "contradiction of murder", as in any number of Agatha Christie novels.

Isn't Los Angeles something of an earthly Eden, though? Not in Chandler. For all his Romantic leanings, nature, in his work, is seldom a source of solace; instead, nature in his Los Angeles is a source of anxiety, as it must be for any environmentally conscious person. By the time Chandler arrived in the city in 1913, the "booster myth" of orange groves, sunshine, and tropical foliage was wearing thin. In fact, the opening of The Big Sleep goes some way toward puncturing that myth: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills…"

Once you start to look for it, the tension between the area's beautiful flora and fauna and the sprawl of its urban features is unavoidable in Chandler's work. It's even in the title of The Blue Dahlia: referring to a sleazy nightclub, the phrase mingles gaudy neon with indigenous flora. No dahlia is naturally blue.

According to William Howarth, who laid out "Some Principles of Ecocriticism", an effective ecocritic should highlight culture's impact on nature, with a view to celebrating nature and "berating its despoilers". It's not hard to find such ambitions in Chandler. Marlowe's Los Angeles is one where neon challenges the sun, rubber trees replace natural flora and the ocean is polluted. When Los Angeles was developed at the end of the 19th century, various flora and fauna were imported; eucalyptus trees from Australia, cypress trees from Italy, pepper trees from Peru and more. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe observes this: "There were all sorts of ornamental trees in clumps here and there and they didn't look like Californian trees. Imported stuff. Whoever built the place was trying to drag the Atlantic seaboard over the Rockies."

Lord Byron once opined that "man marks the earth with his ruin – his control stops with the shore". Chandler might say it goes further. In Farewell, My Lovely, Marlowe calls Bay City – a fictionalised version of Santa Monica – a "dirty bathtub"; the ocean there hosts two gambling ships and the shore scene is, to say the least, unbeautiful. "There was a faint smell of ocean. Not very much, but as if they had kept this much just to remind people this had once been a clean open beach where the waves came in and the wind blew and you could smell something besides hot fat and cold sweat…"

Ecocriticism: Author Raymond Chandler

In the same book, Marlowe adopts a "shiny black bug with a pink head and pink spots" as his "lucky piece"; he rescues it from the Los Angeles Police Headquarters, takes it outside and places it behind a bush. Later, at the novel's end, with the case closed, he signs off: "So long. Did my pink bug ever get back up here?"

What, then, of Chandler's doling out of poetic justice, his "berating of the despoilers"? If Los Angeles is a sordid slum amid copious beauty, who is to blame? In The Big Sleep, Marlowe's employer, General Sternwood, lives in a hilltop mansion. Sternwood is an archetypal booster figure who, with his "thin bloodless hands" resembles Bram Stoker's Count. He's a different sort of vampire though: an oilman. "The Sternwoods, having moved up the hill, could no longer smell the stale sump of water or the oil," Marlowe thinks, "but they could still look out of their front windows and see what had made them rich. If they wanted to. I didn't suppose they would want to."

Indeed, in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, a film heavily indebted to Chandler, the villains are shown to be exploiting the region's natural resources for personal gain. In an early scene, the town's former Mayor, Sam Bagby, delivers an impassioned speech in favour of the proposed and controversial Alto Vallejo Dam and Reservoir: "Beneath this building, beneath every street, there's a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we'd never existed!"

The effect of the desert on Los Angeles has been noted by various writers – Joan Didion found that the Santa Ana winds dry "up the nerves to a flashpoint", and Chandler that they "curl your hair and make your nerves jump", prompting "meek little wives [to] feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks". The desert prompts dangerous, animal behaviour, and Los Angeles, per the earlier description of the parched yard, is a city nourished by its sand. Sternwood's daughter and (spoiler alert) culprit in The Big Sleep, Carmen, has "predatory teeth, as white as fresh orange pith", referencing those resilient myths of bountiful orange groves and fertility – but her healthy appearance, too, is a myth. A child of the city, fathered by a booster, Carmen is more like the arid desert on its borders. There's not the slightest hint of treachery in her appearance, but she is wild and amoral.

One of the few missteps in John Banville's recent Chandler continuation novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, comes when his Marlowe shrugs at nature: "I don't think I'd have recognized a daffodil if I saw one." Chandler's Marlowe would've done more than recognise it; he would've stopped to smell it, too.

Rhys Griffiths is a London-based writer and editor. He works at 'History Today'

This article was originally published in 'The Paris Review'

Dry state: California's drought

By Simon Usborne

We already knew that the drought in California is historically bad. Rainfall in the three years from 2011 was the lowest since records began, 120 years ago. But when scientists bored into blue oak trees, the thickness of whose rings varies according to each year's precipitation, they extracted pencil-thick cores that show the state is enduring its driest spell for at least 1,200 years.

The biggest difference between now and the year 800 is people. There are a lot more of them and their demands on shrivelling waterways have picked up a bit with the advent of golf courses, burgers and a global trade in Californian avocados. Now well into its fourth – and worst – year, the drought led the Governor, Jerry Brown, to declare a state of emergency 16 months ago. The crisis has only worsened since, as lakes dry out and rivers turn to trickles. A recession of the snowpack in mountainous regions only compounds the situation because snowmelt is not irrigating natural habitats or agricultural land.

Water-intensive farming is under attack. Almonds are big business in California, but each nut requires a gallon to grow, or 10 per cent of the agricultural water supply. Avocados are thirsty, too, and meat is worse. Scarcity has also turned water into a valuable commodity. Rice farmers in Northern California have a dilemma – sell water or flood fields. A deal to supply parched Los Angeles could make water more profitable than grain.

Last month, Mr Brown called on the water board to cut supply by a quarter to 35 million people over the next year, or 90 per cent of California's population. Neighbours are turning against each other, as people with sprinklers or suspiciously green gardens get "drought shamed" on social media. Aerial shots of the lush grounds of wealthier residents, including Kim Kardashian and Barbra Streisand, have made the news. There is now at least one drought-shaming app, allowing citizens to photograph, geo-tag and report water wasters.

Corporations have become scapegoats, not least those which bottle water for big profits. Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi own some of the 110 water bottling plants in California, and all have been petitioned to stop. As California endures its 11th year of drought in the past 15 years, the whole country is facing to big questions that can be particularly unpopular – and political – in America. To what extent is climate change to blame? Will millions of people have to change the way they live? While the debate rages, a bit of rain would help – for now.

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