Most critics consider Raymond Chandler to be the greatest author of detective fiction who ever lived. But what most critics fail to realize is that Chandler’s detective skills were limited to the page. In real life, Chandler was a shitty detective.
Consider The Case of the Missing Car Key. In 1932, after a night of carousing and eating tamales in Hollywood, Chandler lost the key to his ‘26 Model T. The next day, Chandler retraced his drunken steps, searched every local watering-hole, and rousted the usual suspects. Eventually, Chandler tried to pin the rap on a wino named Hank Chinaski. But Chinaski, who was best known for playing the role of another author’s alter ego, was eager to play the part of the villain in Chandler’s story, in exchange for more wine and a 5-cent chocolate bar. Trouble was, Chinaski didn’t steal the car key. In fact, the car key was likely in Chandler’s pocket the entire time, but that detail wouldn’t emerge until 1937, when a hobo known as Cheeks Valentine tried on a pair of pants Mrs. Chandler had donated to the local Salvation Army. “The key was in the back pocket,” Cheeks Valentine later recalled, adding that the jagged edge of the key tore a second hole in his “keister.” We know this because Cheeks sued the Chandlers, alleging reckless disregard for butts everywhere. Cheeks and the Chandlers settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. But unfortunately for Chandler, he recovered the key too late to save his Model T, which the city of Los Angeles towed and later sold at auction to cover Chandler’s unpaid parking tickets.
Of course, the case of The Missing Car Key was but one episode in Chandler’s life as a failed amateur detective. In 1899, while at the first annual rally to remember The Maine, Chandler lost his lucky wool derby cap. The cap was never recovered, despite offers of a handsome reward. In 1919, Chandler bet on the underdog Cincinnati Reds to win the World Series, but he lost the betting slip and a small fortune, forcing him to turn to a life of crime writing just to pay the bills. Throughout the roaring twenties, Chandler would frequently lose his tobacco pipes, prompting his friends to saddle him with the ironic nickname Smokin’ Ray. And in 1956, he misplaced his television remote control, which explains why Chandler continued watching Howdy Doody, a show he hated, until his death in 1959.
In literary terms, I am no Raymond Chandler, although sometimes, when leaving a party, I’ve been know to say a long goodbye. But when it comes to solving real life mysteries, I run rings around the man who gave us Philip Marlowe. Indeed, in my spare time, I am a true amateur detective.
It was a Sunday night, and because it was night time, it was dark. Just the regular amount of dark, hardly worth mentioning, except that the absence of daylight really set the mood for a mystery. Another fact hardly worth mentioning is that the weather was clear. This was Los Angeles, after all, where stormy weather is cause for round-the-clock news coverage. So, like I said, it was a dark and clear night.
We were in the living room. The only light source was the glow of the television set. I was sitting on the couch wondering if that second helping of stir-fry had been a mistake. It probably was a mistake, I figured, but I had used fresh ginger and cilantro to elevate the stir-fry to a place called Flavor Country. And when you’re in Flavor Country, moderation doesn’t pay.
To my right, my fearful four-legged companion, Mortimer, was stretched out across a pile of throw pillows, taking his fifth nap of the day. To Mortimer’s right sat a foxy dame named Christina.
A word about Christina. She’s got a heart of gold, a body built for sin, and more brain power than the entire Caltech campus. But sometimes Christina loses things. That’s where I come in. The name is Michael, and I don’t carry a badge, but if you’ve lost something, and you can get in touch with me, there’s a fifty-fifty chance, I might be able to find it.
“Is there something you want to watch on TV?” Christina asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “There’s that new show on the tube. What’s it called?”
“I dunno. Can you give me a clue, honey?”
“The one Allison worked on.”
“Your sister works on a lot of shows.”
That was true. Sometimes I have to use IMDb just to keep tabs on my kid sister.
“The one about the asshole who founded Uber.”
Christina grabbed the remote and opened the Showtime app.
“Oh shit,” she said. “We’re logged out.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “The password is one, two, three, four, five.”
“No, honey, that’s the password you put on our luggage,” Christina said.
After a few attempts, we were still unable to log into the Showtime app. So, Christina jumped up from the couch and ran out of the room.
“Where are you going?” I called after her.
“It’s easier to reset the password on my computer,” she called back.
I looked over at Mortimer. Nap time was over, and so I got up from the couch and walked into the kitchen to make him dinner. But before I could flip on the kitchen lights and open a package of Mortimer’s food, Christina called out from the other end of the house. She sounded… alarmed.
“Have you seen my laptop?”
“Shouldn’t it be in your office?”
“It’s not there!”
I looked down at my fearful four-legged partner.
“The laptop is missing,” I said.
“So… dinner is hold?” Mortimer asked.
“That’s right. We’ve got a case to solve.”
I heard Mortimer’s belly rumble. Then my fearful four-legged partner complained that he was “getting too old for this shit.” But I didn’t care about canned canine cliches (or alliteration, for that matter). I had a case to solve, and solving a case means doing it by the book.
When I entered the office, Christina looked distraught.
“I’m losing my damn mind,” she said. “I always put my laptop right here on the desk.”
I looked at the desk. It was as empty as my wallet. Sure, that was a clunky metaphor, but it was also a good reminder to negotiate my fee in advance.
“What’ll you pay me to find your laptop?” I asked.
“Don’t play dumb,” I said.
Then I hooked my arm around Christina’s waist and pulled her close. Danger close! For a moment, looking into her smoldering eyes, I imagined the electric spark I’d get from kissing this dame on the lips. Hell, I thought, there was enough electricity between us to power the San Fernando Valley.
“It’s you who’s playing it dumb, fella.”
“How do you figure?”
“If I don’t find my laptop, we can’t watch Super Pumped.”
Drat! She had me there. Like I said, this dame had the goods in the brains department.
“OK, never mind my fee. I’ll do this one pro bono. Where was the last place you used the laptop?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you use the laptop today?”
“I don’t think so,” Christina said.
“You slept in, then watched Netflix in bed.”
“I used my phone.”
“We’ll see about that.”
A second later, we were in the bedroom. The laptop was nowhere to be found, but like all good amateur detectives, I never leave a stone unturned. So, I walked over to the bed and grabbed the sheet.
“This is no time for hanky-panky, mister!”
Just then, I pulled the sheet off the bed. There was no laptop, but I did find a pair of socks that had gone missing a few weeks back. At least, I thought, I could close the book on that case.
“OK, let’s think this through. I saw you using the laptop yesterday. We both used it to FaceTime with your brother and Dylan.”
“I remember,” Christina said. “We were in the dining room.”
“The dining room! That’s where Colonel Mustard did his thing with the wrench. Or, was it Professor Plum with the revolver?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just another one of my cases,” I said. “A cold case, with more suspects than clues, unfortunately.”
We searched every corner of the dining room, but the laptop was nowhere to be found. For good measure, I checked my office, then the guest bathroom, the master bathroom, and finally the garage.
“Where could it be?” I wondered.
“You don’t think…”
“No withholding,” I said. “This may be an unofficial investigation, but damn it, this is my unofficial investigation. Now, out with it.”
“Well,” Christina began, “maybe someone broke into our house and stole it.”
I felt a chill run down my spine. Mortimer broke into a cold sweat. A missing item was one thing, but a burglary was an entirely different ballpark.
“Mortimer, get my gun!”
Mortimer took off running.
“Honey, you don’t own a gun. Guns frighten you.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But Mortimer doesn’t know that. And while he’s looking for a gun that doesn’t exist, I’ll be right here looking for my courage.”
“My hero,” Christina teased.
But I was in no mood for snark, not after the dame had introduced the possibility that a bandit, likely someone just out of the hoosegow and hopped up on the devil’s lettuce, had broken into our domicile and boosted Christina’s laptop. Was it possible that we were in the crosshairs of a criminal mastermind? Sure, it was. But that raised a few question in my book.
Why hadn’t the thief taken anything else? We had plenty of valuables, besides the laptop.
Speaking of laptops, why Christina’s laptop and not mine? Wasn’t my laptop good enough for him? Or, did he think Christina’s work files would fetch a greater price on the black market than my unpublished manuscripts?
Was it possible that the thief was still in the house? And if so, would Mortimer return with my imaginary gun in time for me to use it in the final act of this caper and make Anton Chekhov proud?
“Do you think we should call the police?” Christina asked.
“I don’t know. What do you intend to call them?”
“Very funny. But for real, honey, where is my laptop?”
I didn’t have an answer, so I did what all detectives do in these situations. I pressed my hand to my chin and stalled.
“What are you doing?”
“Stroking my chin.”
“Isn’t that a bit of a cliche?”
“Yes. But cliches work.”
“So… what, you just keep stroking your chin until a little imaginary lightbulb goes off in your head?”
“The lights! In the living room. The lights are off.”
“Yeah, we were going to watch TV, remember?”
I ran to the living room and flipped on the lights. Then I raced to the couch and began throwing the pillows on the floor.
“What are you doing?”
“The one room we didn’t search,” I said.
“You’re not gonna find—”
We had found the missing laptop sitting on the glass coffee table. And much like The Case of the Missing Car Key that had given Raymond Chandler fits, the solution was never far from our reach.
“But I don’t understand,” Christina said as she picked up her laptop. “How did I miss it?”
“Elementary, my dear Watson. We were sitting in the dark, when you jumped up and went looking for your laptop.”
“You’re saying if the lights had been on, there wouldn’t have been any mystery at all?”
“Yup. Classic dark and stormy night mystery scenario.”
“But it’s not stormy,” Christina protested.
“Just go with it, dear.”
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Fool! Everyone knows Agatha Christie is the best mystery writer!
What are your other valuables? Asking for a friend.