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L.A. noir: darkness under the sun

A writer tours the gritty spots that inspired the birth of the Los Angeles literary noir movement.

By Randy Dotinga / October 15, 2010

James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which set a standard for L.A. noir, became a film famously starring Lana Turner.

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In the world of literary noir, no one gets out of Los Angeles with his soul intact.

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Lurking amid the cookie-cutter houses and sun-dappled streets are men and women on the make. They're searching for love, for fame, for money, for all of the above and more. If people block the path to success, well, there are ways to make sure they don't stay in the picture.

The literary noir movement started in L.A.: There was James M. Cain, an Easterner who found inspiration for "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" in the city, and Raymond Chandler, creator of the private eye Philip Marlowe, who starred in "The Big Sleep" and "The Long Goodbye."

Why L.A. and why the 1930s and '40s? In hot pursuit of the answer, last weekend I joined a couple dozen other people on an L.A. noir bus tour run by the Esotouric company. We traveled from Hollywood to East L.A. to downtown in search of the places that inspired Cain's books and that appear in the films based on them.

Each year, Richard Schave and Kim Cooper – the married cofounders of Esotouric – take hundreds of Angelenos and visitors on tours of L.A. sites connected to local authors (like Charles Bukowski, the "laureate of American lowlife") and real-life crimes.

After the noir tour, I asked Schave about how the City of Angels inspired L.A. literary noir.

Q: You took us to L.A.'s Skid Row to show us where James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler picked up the brittle lingo that made their novels so distinctive. What did they learn in Skid Row?

A: It was on Skid Row, at the intake missions along Los Angeles Street and the speakeasies along Spring & Main, that Cain found the cadence that he tried hard to duplicate in early novels and plays, but to no avail.

Once Cain trained his ear to get that cadence and tone on paper, we get "The Postman Always Rings Twice," and the Hard-Boiled School of American Letters is born.

Chandler, a writer who made nothing up, simply wandered through the single-room occupancy buildings that often housed single men, sitting in the lobbies and taking notes.

Chandler got not only his cadence and style from the downtown underground culture which Prohibition had created, but also the prototype for Philip Marlowe – Thomas H. James, a famously demoted police investigator.

James was far too efficient in an investigation of a mafia heavy at a time when efficiency was the last thing needed in such a delicate investigation. Demoted to the intersection control beat of 7th & Broadway, his rants and denunciations to passersby at the busiest intersection in Los Angeles were famous.

Raymond Chandler worked two blocks up at Olive & 7th as a disillusioned insurance executive. His famous wanderings to SROs and speakeasies in his afternoons of office loafing brought him into close contact with James.

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