Monday, September 27, 2010

When Red Wind Comes to California

A movie poster from one of Raymond Chandler's best-known detective stories. It has an incomprehensible plot, but who cares?

California has had a cool summer, weatherwise, which has been a lovely thing. It has been sunny and bright, but the thermometer has rarely gone above 80 ℉ degrees.

Now that we've passed the autumnal equinox, the heat has arrived. (Editor's note: I just spoke to my friend Phyllis in Santa Monica where on 7/28/10 the thermometer rose to 111 ℉, so I'm feeling kind of lucky not to live there!) In Southern California, when I went to school down there, I learned that such weather is called the Santa Ana winds. The name likely comes from the fact that when it is especially hot on the coast, it means the hot, dry, wind is blowing over the Santa Ana mountains from the California desert. But, some believe that instead, this is simply a mispronunciation of the murmurings of our original Spanish settlers, who were saying "santana" winds, which meaning winds from the devil.

I prefer the latter. And so must have the writer Raymond Chandler, who, in 1946, wrote one of his best stories about murder and mayhem in Los Angeles in the heat and titled it Red Wind.

In this story's opening lines he sets the scene: "It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curls your hair and makes your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

Chandler was a wonderful writer and a bit of a strange duck. A product of the English public school system who wore a tie when he sat at his typewriter, he found his life's work writing hard-boiled detective fiction in America. He also drank to excess and managed to work in a few screenplays between books and binges, including Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and Strangers on a Train (1951), the last for Alfred Hitchcock. In addition, lots of his stories have been made into films, including The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, Murder My Sweet, the Lady in the Lake, and the Long Goodbye, many of them featuring his private eye, Philip Marlowe.

He was known for collecting metaphors and similes in a notebook, and then sprinkling them throughout his stories. Nowadays, so many mystery writers have copied him that this style has become a cliche, but Chandler started the whole thing. "The kid's face had as much expression as a cut of round steak." (Red Wind) "He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck." (Farewell My Lovely) "She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don't care much for kittens." (The Lady in the Lake) "Soundless as shadows on grass." (Farewell My Lovely)

I often think of the story Red Wind when it gets hot in California. None of his story is literally true to life, but it feels as if it ought to be. And that is what great writers bring to us.

The story also involves a lost aviator and a missing string of pearls and lots of fights. No matter what the weather or location its a good story to sit outside and read on a summer night under the light of the moon, just for fun.

And don't feel too sorry for us when the devil winds hit California. It is supposed to be 90 ℉ degrees today but just now, at 10:30 a.m., it is 73 ℉ and I'm sitting outside with my MacBook as I write. And the low last night was 52 ℉. Much too cool to tempt me to look from a carving knife to my (ex) husband's neck. For the moment.

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