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Saturday 28 August 2021

Raymond Chandler’s Gift To A Writer Even In Death by Jill Amadio

Bringing personal life experiences into your books is one way to enliven scenes because you can usually recall them vividly rather than having to step into a character’s imagined shoes.

The second book in my crime series, Digging Up the Dead: A Tosca Trevant Mystery, re-creates an actual 2011 event I attended before my fiction kicked in. On the first page my amateur sleuth complains, using a few Cornish cusswords, that she wasn’t invited to what she was convinced was Raymond Chandler’s exhumation. Here’s what really happened.

The elements for a crime novel were all there: a disturbed grave, wrenching separation, an unfulfilled desire. A literary detective’s discovery of a “hidden truth”, the granting of a wish after death, and gin gimlets to finalize the deal.

A murder mystery from the pen of the master storyteller? Hardly. Instead, the granting of Raymond Chandler’s fervent wish for his beloved wife, Cissy, to be buried with him. Since her death in 1954 her ashes had lain forgotten on a shelf in a storage shed in a mausoleum that abuts the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, California where Ray is buried.

For decades he waited for her to join him, albeit beneath the sod. Were it not for Chandler historian Loren Latker whose delving into the Chandler archives revealed the writer’s intention for Ray and his beloved to share the same grave, the historic event would never have taken place. Before he died in 1959, five years after his wife’s passing, Ray expressed his wishes regarding burial with her but he never completed the legal paperwork.

A court order was needed to move Cissy’s ashes. Attorney Aissa Wayne, John Wayne’s daughter, took up the challenge, and on the sunny morning of Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2011 Ray and Cissy were reunited in a ceremony presided over by Reverend Randal Gardner.

I drove down from Dana Point, about 50 miles north, vowing not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be present at one of literature’s most poignant moments. When I arrived at the cemetery, which sprawls over a hundred and ten acres, many of the invited guests were already seated on folding chairs beneath a canopy of oak trees facing a podium. It was a gloriously sunny day, the kind Ray longed for when he lived in rainy England (born in Dulwich).

Chandler’s grave is located in a semi-isolated spot among the rolling hills and marked by a humble metal plaque in the ground next to a small evergreen bush. After I expressed disappointment that no impressive headstone marked the icon’s final resting place Pastor Gardner said that the flat plaques were for the convenience of the cemetery’s groundskeepers who rode the tractor lawnmowers. Then I remembered how private a person Chandler always tried to be and how self-effacing. He would have approved.

I also mused that there was plenty of burial space all around him and wondered if any local writer would have the temerity to request to be his neighbor when the time came.

After being directed to parking areas we were handed a program and a sheet printed with The Lord’s Prayer and Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy. Everyone, it seemed, preferred to honor the man in a sartorial manner. Several gentlemen wore 1920s- and 30s-era pin-striped suits, fedoras, Oxfords-style black and white shoes, and to top it off, a pipe clenched between the teeth. The women were splendid in authentic crepe dresses, a few wearing split skirts and black stockings with seams running up the back. Platform shoes were the order of the day and many wore plate-shaped hats of the era tilted saucily to one side. Others favored crushed velvet and felt Robin Hood caps. In The Big Sleep Chandler wrote: “Her black hair was glossy under a Robin Hood hat that might have cost 50 dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter.”

Three classic 1920s roadsters and sedans arrived, their drivers attired in vintage suits and straw boaters. In one of the cars, a 1929 Graham Paige, was Latker bearing the urn that contained Cissy’s ashes. As he walked over to the small table next to Ray’s grave, the Crown Island Jazz Band played Dixieland music. I didn’t get emotional about any of the goings-on until they struck up “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It was a seminal moment, the New Orleans funeral procession music bringing home that this was actually a jubilant occasion.

After a prayer and a singing of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, we were welcomed by Dr. Annie Tiel-Latker who had arranged the ceremony. It had taken two years of courtroom pleadings, finding Ray’s will and codicil, and filing petitions before Chandler and his wife could finally be laid to rest in the same burial plot.

As Marine helicopters from nearby Camp Pendleton droned overhead on training missions, Powers Boothe, the actor who played Philip Marlowe in the HBO television series, brought to life excerpts from Chandler’s writings. Among them were Ray’s masterful metaphors and similes that stopped you cold and forced you re-read them: “[he} was as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake.” Los Angeles “had the personality of a paper cup”, and many, many more.

Next, author Judith Freeman, who wrote The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and The Woman He loved, read movingly from her 2007 book about Ray and his wife.  “Cissy... kept him sane. She watched over him, cared for him, worried about him,” and remarked on the fact that Ray burned all of Cissy’s letters to him after she died, probably to keep their love private.

Then it was time for Raymond’s wish to be fulfilled. A neat, rectangular hole three feet deep and measuring 8” x 14” had been cut from the grave. Rev. Gardner took the small, square casket of ashes and placed it at the foot of Ray’s coffin. The deed was done.

Although I kept my mouth shut at, to me, the ignominy of Cissy being placed at her husband’s feet, I did have Tosca blow off steam about it in my book, mixing fact with fiction.

Boothe concluded the ceremony with, “I’m not going to say goodbye. In the tradition of Raymond I’m going to say, ‘I need a drink and I’m going to have one’”.

So we all trooped off to the Valencia Hotel in La Jolla where Chandler’s table in the bar was still set against the window. His favorite gimlets were served at a reception and at a gala dinner. I was so wiped out by the entire day, alright, the gimlets did tend to add up, that I drove home in a daze but managing to appreciate the honor to have been present at a historic event that was so perfectly literary.

 “What a man wants and needs,” said Chandler, “…is the tangible and ineffable sense that a life is shared”. 

Well, I certainly took advantage of his advice and unashamedly shared in the ceremony of his grave being dug up by claiming it as material for my new book. Thank you for the gift, Ray.


 Digging Up The Dead
       by Jill Amadio

Published by Mainly Murder Press,  2016

 Death is discovered on an idyllic southern California island when feisty British gossip columnist Tosca Trevant is banished to the U.S. at the request of Buckingham Palace. Idly snooping out of sheer boredom, she stumbles across what she believes to be human remains in a recently widowed music professor's rock garden.
Tosca asks a retired U.S. Secret Service agent for help, and by solving the riddle of a coded music score, the two sleuths bring a serial killer to an unexpected end.
Click on the book jacket to read a review.

 Jill Amadio hails from Cornwall, U.K., like the character in her crime series. Amadio was a reporter in Spain, Colombia, Thailand, and the U.S.
She is a true crime author, ghosted a thriller, writes a column for MysteryPeople ezine, and freelances for My Cornwall magazine.
She is a member of Mystery Writers of America,
Sisters in Crime, and Crime Writers Association UK. She lives in Southern California.

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