At the opening of The Lady In The Lake, Raymond Chandler writes: “The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The 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 was breaking his heart.” Here’s Los Angeles playing the role of a Utopia—rubber sidewalks!—always on the verge of being rescinded, and melted back down in favor of guns or vehicles. If California’s place in American history is as a destination that is therefore also an ending, a dream-voyage’s foreclosure before tipping into the Pacific, Manifest Destiny become Manifest Distress, then Los Angeles is a bluff, a tenuous proposition, a place built so quickly that everyone’s nerves are still jangled from its sudden appearance and the obligation to act as though it actually exists. Notice Chandler’s first hesitation—the Treloar “was, and is,” on Olive—might his readers fear it had moved?
While we’re conducting this interrogation, who is that hatless pale man anyway, watching the work? He only has a face like a building superintendent, though of course there’s nothing in this remark that prevents him actually being one. More important, perhaps, is the man describing the man, the man obviously also watching, the Chandler-Marlowe presence that suffuses the scene in its omnipresent-unacknowledged, pale-shading-to-invisible way. What’s his stake in the Treloar and its rubber sidewalk? Hard to say, except that in Chandler the hardboiled style becomes above all a way of seeing, not so far from photography itself. Philip Marlowe’s ease of access across boundaries, his passage again and again into the scenes of love, strife and murder that fill Chandler’s books, reveal him as a kind of camera, or ghost. Making his elusive visitations, Marlowe becomes a presence whose movements, though momentarily subject to the holding actions of policemen or of human desire, are ultimately too lightly bound by these strictures to be more than briefly delayed. “Murder-a-day Marlowe” has always got another appointment to keep, another room or street to occupy in his insomniac catalogue of the false permanence of human arrangements. And, since this is Los Angeles, what he witnesses in the flash-bulb sunlight, the visionary, hallucinatory sunlight, is also the false permanence of the places these human lives have come to occupy, and the false indifference of those places to the human catastrophes enacted within their walls and borders. If architecture is fate, then it is Marlowe’s fate to enumerate the pensive dooms of Los Angeles, the fatal, gorgeous pretenses of glamour and ease, the bogus histories reenacted in the dumb, paste-and-spangles cocktail of style. Remove the dead bodies, and the living ones, as Catherine Corman has done in her own supremely evocative catalogue of haunted places, and the force of Chandler’s insight becomes even more terrifyingly urgent: these streets and buildings we have erected in order to give order to our solitudes, to keep them from being piled unbearably atop one another, they are actively trying to forget us. And what is a ghost, finally, but a kind of building superintendent? At least until the whole place is disassembled and converted into vehicles and guns.
Click here to pre-order Daylight Noir, Catherine Corman's book of photographs of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, due out October 31. You can see more from the series atdaylightnoir.com.