July 19, 1998, Sund ay
Section: Arts and Leisure Desk

Stalking Raymond Chandler's Spirit


LOOKING downstream from this window over the Thames at Chelsea I can almost see Swan Walk, where Raymond Chandler was living in the summer of 1958 when he started work on what turned out to be his last Ph ilip Marlowe story, ''Poodle Springs.''

I did not know this when I was wo rking on the movie of the book, and in fact did not discover it until the other day, when I looked up ''Poodle Springs'' in the 1997 biography of Chandler by To m Hiney.

Swan Walk? I only have to raise my head!

Come to think of it, just at the time when the white pa ges of the shooting script were turning all the colors of the rewrite spectrum u nder the irresistibly courteous pressure from the director, Bob Rafelson, I gave a party in the Chelsea Physic Garden where the mulberry trees throw their after noon shadow into Swan Walk itself. I must have parked my car outside Chandler's house.

The coincidence seems pregnant with significance, until overtaken by the yet more disturbing realization of its complete meaninglessness. Chandler had to be somewhere when he began writing ''Poodle Springs.'' He liked London. He preferred Chelsea to St. John's Wood, where he had alighted on a previous vis it. For a bookish chap, Swan Walk, a quiet one-sided lane of four-story brick ho uses just off the Embankment, was as likely as anywhere.

Exactly 40 years earlier, in 1918, Osbert Sitwell took a lease on No. 5, three doors away, and g ave literary dinner parties there with his sister, Edith, acting as hostess. It would be nice if Chandler knew that.

George Orwell's widow told Chandler , at just such a dinner party, that Edith Sitwell, still going strong at 68, ''s at up in bed and read my stuff with passion.'' According to Mrs. Orwell, Chandle r reported, he was the darling of the British intellectuals and all the poets ra ved about him.

One of the poets was W. H. Auden, who averred that Chandle r's books should not be judged as escape literature but as works of art. Another was Stephen Spender, who with his wife, Natasha, befriended Chandler in London. T. S. Eliot was a fan. It was all true. ''Over here,'' Chandler wrote in a lett er, ''I am not regarded as a mystery writer but as a novelist of some importance .''

In 1958 I thought it was just me. Raymond Chandler was the only gree n Penguin above condescension.

It was not the wisecracks, the smart one-l iners. Derace Kingsley, Marlowe's client in ''The Lady in the Lake,'' has ''a vo ice you could crack a brazil nut on,'' but it was not that. It was not the fancy figures of speech. Waiting in Kingsley's plush outer-office for his client to e merge, Marlowe smokes while ''the minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips,'' and it surely was not that.

It was not the admittedly e njoyable asides. ''You can't tell anything about an outfit like that,'' Marlowe reflects as he smokes his cigarette. ''They might be making millions, and they m ight have the sheriff in the back room, with his chair tilted against the safe.' '

It was more this, which is what happens next.

''Half an hour and three or four cigarettes later a door opened behind Miss Fromsett's desk and tw o men came out backwards, laughing. A third man held the door for them and helpe d them laugh. They all shook hands heartily and the two men went across the offi ce and out. The third man dropped the grin off his face and looked as if he had never grinned in his life.''

Look at it. This is writing at 24 frames per second. The paragraph mimics the action. You get the wait, then the door; you g et their backs before the laughing. The repeat ''laugh'' placed at the end of th e sentence pulls the laughter through the intervening time. The ''out'' at the e nd of the next sentence is the monosyllable made by the door closing.

Eve lyn Waugh called Chandler the best writer in America. But Chandler knew where it came from, and it came from Hemingway. Those stop-frame sentences are an open d eclaration of his pupilage, 20 years after the amazing vignettes and short stori es that made up ''In Our Time.''

Mr. Hiney quotes an attempt at Hemingway pastiche by Chandler in the early 30's, before he attempted to write anything f or publication. It is not very good, not even good pastiche, but in time he got the Hemingway effect figured out, and it was no longer pastiche, it was Chandler . Here is Marlowe suffering a barman in ''The High Window.''

'' 'I made a mistake in a drink. The gentleman was telling me about it.'

'I heard him .'

'He was telling me about it as gentlemen tell you about things like th at. As big- shot directors like to point out to you your little errors. And you heard him.'

'Yeah,' I said, wondering how long this was going to go on.

'He made himself heard, the gentleman did. So I come over here and practic ally insult you.'

'I got the idea,' I said.

He held up one finger and looked at it thoughtfully.

'Just like that,'' he said. ''A perfect st ranger.' ''

It was slow, careful work and always had been, even fo r the pulps. Mr. Hiney tellingly compares the five months Chandler took to write his first story for Black Mask magazine with the three weeks Erle Stanley Gardn er required to dictate his Perry Mason books.

BY 1958, the celebrated ten ant of 8 Swan Walk had lost it. ''The Long Goodbye'' (1953) had been about as go od as the best of him, but the death of his adored wife, Cissy, the following ye ar knocked the fight out of him, and Chandler's main fight was against becoming a full-time drunk instead of the part-time one he'd been for decades.

The re is fun to be had from ''Poodle Springs'' -- ''by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker'' -- but only because Mr. Parker, who is good at Chandler and knows th e game, wrote 240 of the 260 pages.

The four chapters Chandler wrote befo re he gave up lack the old accuracy and the lilt. What they have instead is Chan dler's creakingly reactivated libido, which at the fuddled end of his life impel led him to fall in love with almost any woman who was pleasant to him, and which he now foisted with dreadful archness on poor Philip Marlowe and his bride.

Oh, yes -- ''Poodle Springs'' is Marlowe married.

It was his agent's cousin's idea, wouldn't you know, and Chandler was egged on by a newish friend, a London Sunday Times journalist with a first novel to his name, Ian Fleming. Ch andler had admired ''Casino Royale.''

The overlap between the creators of Philip Marlowe and James Bond was the other mild shock I received from Mr. Hine y. My main idea for ''Poodle Springs,'' the movie, was to move the action forwar d to 1963 (because I had a payoff in mind) and likewise to advance Marlowe's age , making him middle-aged, over the hill, a quaint survival into the ''wrong'' de cade, the only private eye who still wore a hat. So I overlapped him with Bond: Marlowe waiting for someone against a giant billboard for ''From Russia With Lov e,'' a stroke that made me delighted with myself. Mr. Rafelson, courteous to the end, took the housepainter's brush out of my hands but kept the shot, in finess ed form. Don't blink.

In July 1958, The Daily Mail, tipped off that Marlo we was to get married, sent a reporter to Swan Walk. Chandler was dressed in twe eds. The reporter asked him about Cissy.
'' 'She was my one true love . . . You can see her photograph.' He sat up and we both looked at the wall behind t he mantel shelf. There was no photograph there. Chandler looked bewildered and t hen said: 'Oh, I forgot. We're not in my own house.' ''

In August, Chandl er returned to California. In October he sounded pleased and hopeful about the b ook. In February he lost heart -- ''I think I may have picked the wrong girl'' - - and wrote no more. He died a month later, on March 26, 1959, age 70.