Bob’s note: written for the season of good natures and with love and respect for Raymond Chandler’s work. The main case referenced below is the plot thread of Farewell, My Lovely, my favorite of the Marlowe books and set in 1939.
Christmas Eve, and a blade-straight wind is scraping dirt off the San Gabriel Mountains. Out my window the drunks are slurring carols, and eggnog-soaked housewives are screaming their holiday wishes. So much for throwing open my sash.
I shouldn’t complain. Tonight marks the first holiday in memory no one has sapped me roadside, bedside, poolside, ringside or portside. Take how 1939 came: the hard way. My first waking moment of it was from the bottom of a Malibu ravine, courtesy of whoever dumped me there. Midnight on December 31 some people got a kiss. I took a sap to the head. Happy New Year, Marlowe.
I write you from inside a cloud of cigarette smoke. Outside the cloud is my room at the Bristol. It is the kind of place you might want to call home, but only after waking up in a few ravines. On my door hangs a sunburned wreath as gnarled as the traffic on Sunset. Around my window is a strand of colored lights supposed to make the season merry. Half the bulbs have already called it quits. I don’t blame them. In Hollywood neon outmuscles electric and keeps my apartment tinged the local brand of scarlet. I also tied a bow atop my house bottle of Four Roses. I am in a cloud of that too.
The bourbon is in the hopes St. Nicholas will soon be here. I put it out every year. He’s never made it yet. Maybe he has a habit of meeting brunettes and winding up in a ravine. It is known to happen. Just in case I have set out the whisky, two slug glasses, the chessboard, and my .38 loaded with good cheer. I can play things any way Santa wants.
Speaking of St. Nick, I chose this card because on its front is a Santa who for once does not look tight. His smile is pursed and his rosy cheeks are from effort. He squats on a bench beside a fire and wears suspenders over a flannel shirt, his sleeves rolled up, back straight, jaw set inside jowls thick from milk and cookies. In one hand he steadies a wooden peg over a half-assembled sled on his lap. In the other he raises a mallet that could tenderize a polar bear. The old elf is really lining up his shot.
I could give that sled advice on repeated lickings. At Thanksgiving a client played bass drum with my skull and tossed me into a cactus patch. I can’t remember why. Maybe I pulled the short end of the wishbone. I ought to ask Santa for a helmet. Or resolve to check over my shoulder more frequently. Either would pay off.
In addition to the sappings, or more likely why I earn them, the shamus business keeps taking me to Bay City. I always wind up in the sneezer with a police lieutenant barking about the stiff found beside me. In Bay City police lieutenants come assembly line–always dirtier than the tar pits and beefier than a dude ranch stockade. They carry batons and not for show.
I have just had another belt of Four Roses.
In March I wore ruts in the Coast Highway going back and forth up there. I had been busy getting sapped when my client the blackmailer was beaten to death. Sure enough, the police lieutenant asked me not so nicely why. The clues led to a phony psychic who hustled dirty secrets, but all learning that gained me was a working over by his one-man wrecking crew and later some bent cops. Afterward they handed me to a dope doctor for more fun and games. To make a long story short, I bludgeoned a sanitarium guard senseless, slept off the dope, and dodged lead from a blonde whose aim thankfully had more curves than her body. More than a few of her bullets put more than a few holes in a con who had killed more than a few people. He was standing right here where I write you this Holiday greeting. I’d bet the sawbuck it takes to get a private investigator license that now Santa has me down for a bag of coal.
1939 may not die easy. No reason it should. But riding in the wind is a sense of something beyond the slick of city lights. Skip a holiday sapping, and even a broke detective might turn sentimental. They might spy on the horizon a fat old elf hitched up to flying reindeer. They might see the blank slate of January.
Or maybe those are just mountains.