LOS ANGELES - The thought hit as soon as the bus pulled up: "I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun."
Actually, what I really had was a notebook, a pen, and a digital recorder. Oh yeah, and a seat on Esotouric's Raymond Chandler Bus Tour, having decided to learn whether L.A. really is, as Chandler's hard-bitten detective Philip Marlowe once said, "just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style."
To find out, I would have to get as close to the source as possible. Just as Marlowe had done in Farewell, My Lovely, when he picked up that hat and coat, strapped on that gun, and passed through the mansions, the dive bars, and the "dine and dice emporiums" of this gaudy city in search of a deadly redhead named Velma.
The source of course couldn't be Chandler himself. L.A.'s literary legend, arguably the greatest crime novelist of all time, had died 50 years earlier. Now, like Joe Brody in The Big Sleep, he was at rest in a modest grave in a San Diego cemetery.
No, the man to see would be Richard Schave, the guy standing by the front of the bus, the one in the snap-brim fedora, gaudy blue vest, and white shirt.
His outfit didn't look quite as outrageous as that of the cowboy hoodlum in The Long Goodbye, the fellow Marlowe once mocked as looking like he was ready to "dance a tango with a ground squirrel." But it made you think of it.
The 40-year-old tour guide was impressively well versed, however, on every aspect of Chandler's life.
Schave had grown up in this neon-lighted slum that the author liked to mock as a place of "sunglasses and attitudes and pseudo-refined voices and waterfront morals." And so he knew that Chandler secretly loved this city, in that twisted love-hate way only an Angeleno can.
"I read his letters, and I knew Chandler liked to give tours of Los Angeles, about scenes from his books and his crime scenes in particular, and I always had this notion of how do you show people Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles," Schave said.
But he might never have done it if there hadn't been a woman involved. As Marlowe might say, "There always is."
Schave's wife, Kim Cooper, began putting together an L.A. crime noir blog three years ago, focusing on the year 1947. From the still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder of Elizabeth Short, whose body was neatly cut in half and left in a vacant lot, to the rubout of mob boss Bugsy Siegel, there was no lack of subject matter.
Soon Cooper had a loyal following, and when readers wanted to see the crime sites she was writing about, it seemed only natural to rent a bus and take them there.
Three years later, Esotouric offers about a dozen different year-round tours, most focusing on the mean L.A. streets Chandler glamorized.
There's a tour that covers the favorite haunts of Skid Row poet laureate Charles Bukowski and another that takes you down the streets that inspired musician Tom Waits. The sites that shaped the works of classic L.A. noir writers John Fante (Ask the Dust) and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) are also included. The great L.A. crime novelist James Ellroy has even climbed aboard the bus a couple of times to show riders the places that inspired works such as L.A. Confidential and The Big Nowhere.
But Esotouric's two Chandler tours remain the most popular of its four-hour Saturday excursions.
"I've been a mystery buff since I was a kid," said Scott Nessa, who traveled from Minneapolis with his friend Cathy Carter to see sites like the venerable Hollywood hangout Musso and Frank, where Chandler wrote The Big Sleep; the Lincoln Heights jail, where the author gained valuable knowledge for Marlowe's incarceration in The Long Goodbye while sleeping off his own benders; and the Chateau Delaware, the beaux arts building Marlowe was living in when he set out to learn who put The Lady in the Lake. It was also where Joe Brody got plugged in The Big Sleep.
Then there's the Barclay Hotel on the edge of Skid Row, the place where the bald guy in Room 332 got the ice pick in the neck in The Little Sister. It was called the Van Nuys Hotel in the book, a name still etched in the granite facade.
"He really captured the flavor of L.A.," bus rider Maureen Myers of Los Angeles said of Chandler as she dug her spoon into a cup of gelato outside another tour stop, Scoop's, in east Hollywood.
A friendly hole-in-the-wall place where they don't ask too many questions, Scoop's could have served as a Marlowe watering hole if it only served vodka gimlets instead of Italian ice cream.
Still, the nicotine-flavored gelato dished up got the point across: This is L.A., a city where oddness, if not invented, was certainly perfected. It's Raymond Chandler's L.A.