Cracking the Cassidy Case

By Robert F. Moss


"Don't forget this is a murder case, Marlowe." 

"I'm not. But don't you forget I've been around this town a long time, more than fifteen years. I've seen a lot of murder cases come and go. Some have been solved, some couldn't be solved, and some could have been solved that were not solved. And one or two or three of them have been solved wrong. Somebody was paid to take a rap, and the chances are it was known or strongly suspected. And winked at. But skip that. It happens, but not often. Consider a case like the Cassidy case. I guess you remember it, don't you?"

Breeze looked at his watch. "I'm tired," he said. "Let's forget the Cassidy case. Let's stick to the Phillips case."

I shook my head. "I'm going to make a point, and it's an important point. Just look at the Cassidy case. Cassidy was a very rich man, a multimillionaire. He had a grown up son. One night the cops were called to his home and young Cassidy was on his back on the floor with blood all over his face and a bullet hole in the side of his head. His secretary was lying on his back in an adjoining bathroom, with his head against the second bathroom door, leading to a hall, and a cigarette burned out between the fingers of his left hand, just a short burned out stub that had scorched the skin between his fingers. A gun was lying by his right hand. He was shot in the head, not a contact wound. A lot of drinking had been done. Four hours had elapsed since the deaths and the family doctor had been there for three of them. Now, what did you do with the Cassidy case?"

Breeze sighed. "Murder and suicide during a drinking spree. The secretary went haywire and shot young Cassidy. I read it in the papers or something. Is that what you want me to say?"

"You read it in the papers," I said, "but it wasn't so. What's more you knew it wasn't so and the D.A. knew it wasn't so and the D.A.'s investigators were pulled off the case within a matter of hours. There was no inquest. But every crime reporter in town and every cop on every homicide detail knew it was Cassidy that did the shooting, that it was Cassidy that was crazy drunk, that it was the secretary who tried to handle him and couldn't and at last tried to get away from him, but wasn't quick enough."





The narrator is Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled private eye. The scene is from The High Window, Chandler's third novel. The cops--Breeze and Spangler--are leaning on Marlowe, trying to get him to tell who he's working for, but Marlowe won't play ball. He goes on talking, giving more and more detail about the Cassidy case, until Breeze cuts him off:

      "Make your point."

      I said: "Until you guys own your own souls you don't own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every time and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may--until that time comes, I have a right to listen to my conscience, and protect my client the best way I can."

The scene is stock detective story stuff: crooked cops, civic corruption, rich men buying off the law, and the honest private detective who'll ensure justice is served. Lt. Breeze isn't too impressed by Marlowe's story, but his younger partner Spangler is. Later he tells Marlowe, "Say, I'd like to read up on that Cassidy case. . . . Sounds interesting. Must have been before my time."

"It was a long time ago," Marlowe says. "And it never happened. I was just kidding."

But neither Marlowe nor Chandler were kidding.


 

Greystone: Home of Edward L. Doheny, Jr.
Greystone, Home of Edward L. Dohney, Jr., Beverly Hills, CA
Shortly after midnight on Sunday, February 17th, 1929, the Beverly Hills Police Department and the Los Angeles District Attorney were called to Greystone, a thirty-five-room mansion on twelve and a half acres of land. They found two me dead. One was Edward L. Doheny, Jr., the thirty-six-year-old son of a multimillionaire oilman. The other was Hugh Plunkett, the son's confidential secretary. Both had been shot through the head by bullets from a single .45 calibre pistol.

The crime scene at Greystone, February 17th, 1929
The Crime Scene at Greystone

Doheny, dressed only in underwear and a silk bathrobe, lay on his back on the carpet of a luxurious first-floor bedroom. A bullet had penetrated his skull from ear to ear. Blood criss-crossed his face in a grid-like pattern and pooled around his head on the carpet. Plunkett's corpse was twelve feet away, sprawled spread-eagle on his stomach, in the hallway just beyond the bedroom door. 

Dr. E. C. Fishbaugh, a prominent Beverly Hills society doctor and personal physician to the Doheny family, was the primary witness to the events that evening. Hugh Plunkett, he said, had been suffering from "a nervous disease." On the afternoon of Saturday, February 16th, Plunkett had come to Greystone for a conference with Dr. Fishbaugh and Edward L. Doheny, Jr., who were trying to persuade the secretary to admit himself to a sanitarium. Plunkett refused. That night Dr. Fishbaugh went to a Hollywood theater to watch a comedy show. Around 10:30 P.M. he received a telephone message that he was urgently needed at the Doheny mansion to try to relieve Plunkett, who was suffering from a throat pain and hysteria. When he arrived at Greystone, Fishbaugh was met at the front door by Mrs. Doheny, whom he described as calm and in good spirits. "She greeted me," Fishbaugh said in his statement to the District Attorney,

      and when I asked where her husband was she said he was in a guest room to the left of the hall leading from the front entrance.

      Mrs. Doheny and I started down the hall side by side. Suddenly, through the half- opened door which partitions the hallway, I saw Plunkett walking toward us. 'You stay out of here!' he shouted. Then he slammed the door shut. A moment later we heard a shot.

      I sent Mrs. Doheny back to the living room. Then I pushed the door open and saw Plunkett lying on his face opposite the door to the bedroom.

Fishbaugh went past Plunkett's body and into the guest room, where he found Doheny dead, a chair overturned beside him. In his statement, he said he heard only one shot, the one right after Plunkett slammed the hallway door. Mrs. Doheny reported that earlier she had heard a noise that might have been a gunshot, but at the time thought that it was "someone turning over some furniture or something." She had heard no quarrelling between her husband and his secretary.

After she and Dr. Fishbaugh discovered the corpses, Mrs. Doheny called her two brothers, Warren and Clark Smith, and her brother-in-law, Anson Lisk. Lisk lived in a house on the estate and arrived at the Doheny home after only a few minutes. The Smith brothers followed not long after, and they phoned the Beverly Hills police and District Attorney Buron Fitts, who showed up around midnight. A little after two A.M. Fitts's investigators were on the scene.

The crime occurred too late to make the Sunday morning papers, but it was reported in Monday editions across the country, including the front page of the New York Times. The murder of a wealthy man is always newsworthy. But, Edward L. Doheny, Jr. was more than just a wealthy man.

His father, Edward, Sr., could have been a character out of a Horatio Alger story. He was born in Wisconsin in 1856, the son of Irish-Catholic immigrants. At fifteen, Doheny graduated from high school (as class valedictorian), then took a job as a mule driver for a U.S. government surveying party in Arizona and New Mexico. He learned the basics of surveying, but soon turned to prospecting for gold and silver in the deserts and mountains of the Southwest.

Fourteen years later, in 1892, Doheny was in Los Angeles, California. He had made a good bit of money prospecting, but a series of failed ventures left him broke. He was still looking for his big chance, and when it came he seized it with both hands. Doheny was walking down a Los Angeles street when he saw a wagon filled with oozing, dark black earth. He asked the driver what the load was and learned that it was brea, Spanish for tar, and that it had come from the Westlake Park area. Doheny knew that where there was tar there was oil. He and a partner leased some land in Westlake, hired a driller, and struck oil at 225 feet. The Doheny strike sparked the Los Angeles petroleum boom. Over the next decade 1,500 wells were drilled in and around the city. By 1912 the region was producing 4.4. million barrels a year. Doheny himself owned eighty-one oil wells in the city, and he quickly expanded his operation throughout the state of California. The rush for oil was the first step in the transformation of Los Angeles from a small Western city to a major American metropolis. Edward L. Doheny was, in a sense, one of the city's founding fathers.

Sometime during the 1880s, Doheny had married his first wife, a woman named Carrie about whom little is known. His only son, Edward, Jr., was born in 1894. Doheny apparently separated from Carrie around the turn of the century, and on August 22, 1900 he married his second wife, Estelle. In 1901 they bought a mansion at Number Eight Chester Place, the city's most prestigious street. Doheny and his wife completely redecorated the house, buying a glass dome from Tiffany, marble columns from Italy, and a gold-lacquer Steinway piano. Estelle Doheny became an avid collector of jewels, orchids, paper weights, and books. The family owned a 400-acre ranch in Beverly Hills--where they would later build their son's mansion--as well as a yacht and a park containing domesticated deer, monkeys, and parrots. It was in this world that Edward L. Doheny, Jr. ("Ned" to his friends) was raised.

Ned Doheny entered Stanford in 1912 and a year later transferred to the University of Southern California to study law. In June 1913 he married Lucy Smith, the daughter of a vice president of the Santa Fe Railroad Company. When he graduated from USC in 1916, Ned became a vice-president in his father's company. He served as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War I, then returned to Los Angeles to continue in the oil business.

Ned found a valuable assistant in Hugh Plunkett, a man who--like the elder Doheny-- had made a success of himself through hard work and a little luck. Plunkett was born in Kansas and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1912. He found work as a tire changer at a service station owned by W.H. Smith, the father of Ned Doheny's fianc‚e. Plunkett regularly worked on vehicles belonging to the Doheny family, and when Ned and Lucy were married in 1913, he was hired as a family chauffeur. He gradually rose in the family's confidence, and by the 1920s was overseeing the operations of Ned Doheny's household. Plunkett had a hand in many of the details of the construction of Greystone, including signing checks on Doheny's account to pay contractors' bills--bills running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It was at this time that Ned Doheny, his father, and Hugh Plunkett became embroiled in one of the most notorious political scandals in American history: Teapot Dome.

The roots of the scandal lay in the efforts of private companies to have access to Naval Oil Reserves, federal lands set aside to ensure the military an adequate supply of fuel during wartime. Woodrow Wilson's administration opposed such private leases, but the climate changed when Warren Harding was elected President in 1920. In 1922, Albert B. Fall, Harding's Secretary of the Interior and an old friend of Edward Doheny, secretly leased the Teapot Dome Reserve to Harry F. Sinclair's Mammoth Oil Company and the Elk Hills Reserve to Doheny's Pan-American Petroleum Company. There was no competitive bidding for the contracts, and the day after Doheny signed the initial papers he received a telephone call from Fall, telling him to go ahead and send the "loan" they had previously discussed. Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett withdrew $100,000 in cash from Ned's account at the Blair and Company brokerage house, put it in a little black bag, and delivered it to Albert Fall at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. Harry Sinclair had worked out a similar arrangement with Fall, giving him some $260,000 in Liberty bonds.

The deals remained secret until after Warren Harding's death in August 1923, when Calvin Coolidge began an investigation into Fall's activities. The Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys called for hearings on the Naval Reserve leases, and the scandal was soon made public. Fall, Sinclair, and Doheny were called to testify before the committee, and they were eventually indicted on charges of bribery and conspiracy to defraud the government. The court proceedings lasted almost a decade, and the investigations sparked by the Teapot Dome scandal soon uncovered widespread corruption in Harding's administration, making it a contender with Ulysses S. Grant's for the most graft-ridden in U.S. history.

Two civil cases resulted in the cancellation of the Naval Reserve leases, but in a criminal trial Doheny was acquitted of conspiracy to defraud the government. There was still one more charge to face: criminal bribery. Albert Fall was scheduled to be tried on October 7, 1929. If Fall were acquitted, Doheny, Sr. would effectively be acquitted as well. If not, Doheny would have to stand trial on his own in March 1930. Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett were both slated to be witnesses in Fall's trial. Neither lived to testify.

On the Monday after the murder/suicide, the Los Angeles Times devoted three pages to the investigation, complete with a detailed summary of Dr. Fishbaugh's statement to the district attorney, accounts of Ned Doheny's and Hugh Plunkett's lives, and a half-page diagram of the crime scene and Plunkett's apparent movements. District Attorney Buron Fitts announced that he was launching "a sweeping investigation of the events surrounding the slaying of Edward L. Doheny, Jr." The case seemed poised to join the Snyder-Grey and Leopold-Loeb murders as one of the most sensational crimes of the 1920s.

It never did. The next day, Tuesday, February 19th, the Times gave only a single column to the story. Less than twenty-four hours after announcing a "sweeping investigation," Fitts declared that "since the person responsible for the tragedy was dead," no inquest would be held. The death certificates were signed, and the case was closed as a homicide and a suicide. The remainder of the article discussed the plans for Ned Doheny's funeral and the emotional state of the family.

The last paragraph revealed one new fact not known the day before: Ned Doheny had not died immediately when shot by Plunkett but rather lived "until a moment after Dr. Fishbaugh rushed into the room at the sound of the shot with which the secretary ended his own life." The detail seemed trivial and irrelevant. Wednesday's paper contained a modest account of Ned Doheny's funeral, and then nothing more was said about the case. The curtain had been rung down.

Leslie White's D.A. Identification Card
Leslie White's District Attorney's Office ID Card

Not everyone was satisfied with the official accounts of the deaths. One such skeptic was Leslie T. White, a newly-hired investigator for the District Attorney's office. The Doheny murder offered White his first taste of really "big stuff," and he dove into the case with zeal. White's account of the investigation is recorded in his 1936 autobiography, Me, Detective, a book that was published with little fanfare and almost immediately faded into obscurity. His memoir, though, gives a unique, unauthorized version of the events at Greystone on the night of February 17th, 1929, and the details don't quite match up with the official story. White recalled being summoned to the Doheny mansion at 2:00 a.m. There he found D.A. Fitts, the Beverly Hills police, and a scene much like that described in the newspapers: Ned Doheny dead on his back in the guest room and Plunkett face-down in the hallway outside. White went to work gathering physical evidence and interviewing witnesses. Dr. Fishbaugh, Mrs. Doheny, and the household staff had had a sizeable amount of time to recover their composure between the firing of the shots and the arrival of the police. Their testimony, White later wrote, "dovetailed with remarkable accuracy." They had heard a disturbance, gone to investigate, and had been met at the hallway door by Plunkett, who slammed the door and, a moment later, ended his own life. But, according to White, one witness
      . . . reported that the shots, all of them, had been fired in quick succession--within a full second . . .

      "One--two--three!" she described it.

      This story did not quite fit the physical facts as I found them, and with a shock, I began to suspect that something was wrong.

When he examined Plunkett's body on the floor, furthermore, White found that the left hand held a cigarette "in such a way that it would have been impossible for him to have opened the door and threatened witnesses as they so testified. He had the gun in his right, by their story."

White uncovered more suspicious evidence after he took the bodies to the morgue for examination. "I found powder burns," he wrote, "around the bullet-hole in Doheny's head, proving the gun was held less than three inches away at the moment it was fired. I found no such markings on Plunkett's head." At the crime scene, White had discovered the murder weapon under Plunkett's body. Though Plunkett had been dead for several hours, the gun was still warm. White test-fired the weapon many times, but found that "it did not heat up to any noticeable extent." There were no fingerprints on the gun, and White was at a loss to explain how it could have stayed so warm for so long. White's initial hypothesis was that Plunkett had not killed Doheny at all and that there was something "warped" about the case.

White continued his investigation through the night, and in the morning reported to District Attorney Fitts. He confessed his suspicions about the witnesses' stories, but admitted he was reluctant to tamper with a family as powerful as the Dohenys. White recalled that Fitts reddened and snapped, "There isn't a man in the United States that's big enough to stop me from conducting a criminal investigation." Fitts seemed determined to push the inquiry further and summoned several of the witnesses--including Dr. Fishbaugh--to the Hall of Justice for questioning.

At this session, Fitts did most of the talking, with White interrupting only once to ask a few questions, which brought an odd response:

      "Doctor, you were in the house at the time the shooting took place and you rushed into the bedroom within a matter of seconds thereafter. Is that correct?"

      He nodded affirmatively.

      "Doheny was dead when you arrived?"

      He again nodded.

      "And the body was not disturbed in any way?"

      "It was not disturbed."

      "Then, Doctor, as an experienced physician, will you kindly explain how blood could run up from the ears and cross back and forth over the face of a man who never moved off his back?"

      The physician hesitated. He was trapped and he knew it. In a low voice he admitted that young Doheny had lived for approximately twenty minutes after the shooting and during that time they had picked him up, then replaced him on the floor.

White does not make much of Dr. Fishbaugh's changing his story, merely adding it to the list of suspicious details. But, the revelation that Doheny did not die until well after he was shot was reported in newspapers on Tuesday, February 19th. Its appearance in the press lends credence to Leslie White's story. At the very least, it seems that there was certainly something "warped" about the Doheny case.

One of the most curious elements of the crime is that it occurred only a short time before Ned Doheny and Hugh Plunkett were scheduled to testify in the Albert Fall bribery case. The Dohenys, by their own admission, had been trying for several weeks to convince Plunkett to enter a sanitarium. In an official statement released the day after the shooting, the Doheny family lawyer claimed, "a few weeks ago Plunkett showed signs of a nervous breakdown." This explanation of madness was faithfully reported in the press, though no one outside the Doheny family and their employees provided any evidence of this instability. Plunkett's ex-wife told reporters that she never saw signs of insanity in her former husband, though he was occasionally subject to fits of anger.

Plunkett was not the only witness unable to testify in the bribery trial. Ned McLean, who had been a witness in the earlier Senate Committee hearings, apparently went insane as well. At the time of Fall's trial, McLean was confined to an asylum.

Had nothing further come of the murder/suicide, it would have remained a curious historical anecdote. But something further did come of it: it was picked up by Raymond Chandler.

In February 1929, Chandler had yet to write a single word of detective fiction. He was forty years old and an executive in the California oil business. It was an unlikely career for a man of his background. He was born in Chicago in 1888. After his parents divorced in 1895, he and his mother moved to England. Chandler was raised in the English public school environment and received a classical education at Dulwich College. Following graduation, he worked briefly as a clerk in the Admiralty before deciding to make a career as a man of letters. He published highly-romantic poetry and rather effete book reviews in several small London literary magazines, but after a few years realized that he could never make a living at it.

In 1912, Chandler borrowed money from his uncle and moved back to the United States to try his hand at business. He settled ultimately in Los Angeles, arriving, as he put it, "with a beautiful wardrobe, a public school accent, no practical gifts for earning a living, and a contempt for the natives." He worked a series of odd jobs, put himself through nightschool, and eventually landed a job as a bookkeeper for the Dabney Oil Syndicate. By 1929, he had worked his way up to the position of vice-president and was an officer or director in half a dozen oil corporations under the Dabney umbrella.

It is unclear exactly how much Chandler knew about the Doheny family. None of his letters from before 1938 survive. What little is known about Chandler's years in the oil business has been reconstructed from his comments in letters written later in his life and from interviews with several of his business colleagues (conducted in the 1970s by Frank MacShane, Chandler's biographer). Doheny's name is absent from these sources, but Chandler--as an executive in the California oil industry--certainly knew who Doheny was and, more than likely, had met him at one time or another.

So how, then, did Chandler get his information about the Doheny/Plunkett case, information that he incorporated into The High Window? There are several possibilities.

The first is that he learned much of it from his colleagues in the oil business. The crime, after all, not only received front-page coverage in the Los Angeles papers, but it involved major players in the California oil industry. Even if Chandler himself did not have close ties to the Doheny family, he certainly knew people who did.

A more likely source is Leslie White's memoir Me, Detective. After Chandler lost his job in the oil industry in 1932--fired because of drinking problems, absenteeism, and a series of affairs with office secretaries--he listed himself in the Los Angeles Directory as a writer and began teaching himself the craft of fiction. Unlike Dashiell Hammett, who had been a Pinkerton detective before turning to writing, Chandler had no first-hand experience in crime investigation. He learned, instead, by reading mystery stories and books on firearms, police methodology, cross-examination, and toxology. A book such as Me, Detective, which was published in the middle of Chandler's apprentice period, would have been an ideal addition to his library.

Chandler could have gotten some of his facts--such as the positions of the bodies and the presence of the family doctor at the scene--from newspaper accounts, but many of the Cassidy case details appear only in White's book. Doheny's head, for instance, showed a contact wound and Plunkett's did not--a seeming contradiction of the official story that Plunkett was the one who did the shooting. Chandler incorporates as well the detail of the cigarette that was found in the secretary's left hand, burned down to the point of scorching the skin. In Chandler's version, Marlowe says that four hours elapsed between the shootings and the time the police were called. Newspaper accounts of the crime, though, repeatedly state that the shooting took place between ten and eleven P.M. and that the Beverly Hills Police were on the scene by midnight--a one- or two-hour gap. The most likely explanation for this discrepancy is that Chandler was working primarily from the account in Me, Detective. White reports that he was called to Greystone at 2:00 A.M, but he makes no mention of when the regular police were called. The four-hour figure seems an easy assumption for Chandler to have made.

There remains one further possibility for Chandler's source: he could have heard the story from Leslie White in person. In 1932, the same year Chandler was fired from the oil business, White resigned as a D.A.'s investigator. Like Chandler, he decided to pursue a career in fiction writing. White got his start writing for the pulp magazines, and he published some five hundred stories and articles and twenty books over the next thirty years. He also wrote screenplays for Hollywood, a profession Chandler would share in the 1940s.Los Angeles pulp writers maintained a fairly close network during the Depression, and White and Chandler were both friends with Erle Stanley Gardner (the creator of Perry Mason). There is no record that the two ever met, but considering the circumstances of their careers it seems likely that they would have known each other. If so, Chandler could have gotten first-hand dope on the Dohney murder from the man who had actually been there.

The connections among the Doheny family, Leslie White, and Raymond Chandler are compelling, but they do not provide a concrete explanation of what happened that night in 1929 at the Doheny mansion. Marlowe's question to Detectives Breeze and Spangler is a good one: what do you do with the Cassidy case?

The full story will never be told. Leslie White seemed content to let the case slide, to chalk it up as merely another example of the power of wealth buying exemption from legal and public scrutiny. Dan La Botz, the biographer of Edward L. Doheny, Sr., connects the murder/suicide with the prospect of Hugh Plunkett's testifying against the Dohenys in the upcoming Albert Fall bribery trial, but he shies away from laying any definite blame for the crime. Both writers seem content to portray the murder/suicide as "fishy" and let it go at that.

What really matters about the Cassidy/Doheny case is not who shot whom or even whether there was a connection with the ongoing Teapot Dome scandal. The fact remains that there was more than enough evidence of funny business for the D.A. to launch an in- depth investigation and for the newspapers to make a scandal out of the shootings. That never happened. Instead, because of the power of the Doheny oil money, the case was brought to a hasty close and a blanket of silence fell over the press.

The murder/suicide, nevertheless, has a lasting legacy in American culture. The Doheny case lies not only beneath the novels of Raymond Chandler but, because of Chandler's position as one of the founding fathers of the hardboiled detective story, beneath the mystery genre as well. The patterns established by Chandler in his Marlowe novels were picked up by the writers who followed him and have worked their way into movies and television. They have become stereotypes.

Chandler insisted in his letters and essays that he took the existing form of the murder mystery and made it realistic, taking it out of English rose gardens and vicarages and putting it down in the mean streets where crimes really happened. "The realist in murder," Chandler wrote,

      writes of a world in which gangsters can rules nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which the screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing.
Chandler was a disillusioned romantic, an English public schoolboy who grew up to learn that the world is not governed by a gentlemen's code--and was outraged by that lesson. And, certainly, it would be foolish to claim that Los Angeles was nothing more than a teeming underworld of sin and corruption. But, there were real, concrete reasons for Chandler to have made these conclusions. At the time that he was exploring and learning about the city, Los Angeles truly was controlled by an untouchable circle of rich men. The police and the press were under the thumbs of wealth and criminal syndicates, and law could be bought for the right price.

Buron Fitts, the District Attorney who led the abortive investigation into the Doheny slayings, had been elected as a reformer. In 1928, Fitts had been appointed by the state attorney general as a special prosecutor against Asa Keyes, the incumbent Los Angeles D.A., who was indicted on charges of criminal conspiracy to give and receive bribes. Fitts's prosecution was successful, and he used the publicity to get himself elected as Keyes's successor.

Whatever reformist zeal the new D.A. had at the beginning of his tenure--and Leslie White claimed that Fitts made a "valiant attempt to get at the truth" in the Doheny murder--he soon learned that the powers controlling Los Angeles were too strong to be bucked. Fitts quickly became a part of the machine. During his decade in office he earned a reputation as a man who would protect his friends--and anyone else with enough money--from the threat of prosecution.

In 1934, Fitts was indicted on twenty-one charges, including perjury and bribe-taking, though a jury acquitted him in 1936. Fitts's connections in Hollywood were strong as well. He received lavish gifts from producers and stars and could be depended on to allow celebrities to avoid scandalous trials. Budd Schulberg, the son of a studio mogul and a screenwriter during Fitts's era, remembers that, "Buron Fitts was completely in the pocket of the producers. You could literally have somebody killed, and it wouldn't be in the papers."

The Doheny case was one of the first of Fitts's many concessions to the political influence of money. And he wasn't alone. His career followed the standard pattern for public officials in Los Angeles. Between 1915 and 1940, every mayor, district attorney, and county sheriff elected ran on a reform platform; each was either run out of office within two years or became just as corrupt as the man who preceded him. These-office holders walked a tight rope between, on the one hand, the interests of conservative businessmen (supported by Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times) and, on the other, the entrenched network of organized crime.

The police force served more often to protect major racketeers from upstart competitors than to eradicate crime. Cops routinely trampled on constitutional rights--arresting without warrants, framing reform leaders, brutalizing prisoners, and protecting vice interests. An observer--like Chandler--who had lived in the city for several decades would have witnessed a continual parade of anti-vice campaigns and reform tickets, each of which made a lot of noise and each of which accomplished next to nothing. Little wonder then that both Chandler and White concluded that it was the system as a whole that was corrupt and that there was little an individual--no matter how honest--could do to change it.

These conclusions can be seen in the way Chandler portrays the police in his novels. Commentators have often remarked that Chandler filled his stories with cops who are brutal and dishonest, but that is not exactly the case. Very few of Chandler's policemen are seriously corrupt. Most are tough, hard-working family men trying their best to do an honest job despite the corruption of the system.

And that, ultimately, is what Chandler's novels are about: not crime, not sex, not murder, but rather the struggles of a lone individual with a sense of honor and propriety trying to function in a world hostile to honesty. Chandler was not a reformer. He was, by nature, quite conservative. He never advocated a program for social change. If his letters are any indication, Chandler had little interest in politics and did not heavily research real-life corruption. His crime stories, rather, functioned more as a metaphor for his bitter view of modern life as a whole.

Chandler in many ways seems to have viewed himself as a Marlowe-like figure. His experiences with the Dabney Syndicate convinced him that the oil business was little more than a racket, yet he took pride in his own performance as an executive and office manager. Chandler once bragged in a letter, "I always somehow seemed to have a fight on my hands." He recalled an incident where a car collided with one of the company's trucks and the passengers sued for damages. The insurance company wanted to settle, but Chandler insisted on taking the case to court. He won. In another incident, in which the firm pressed charges against an embezzler, Chandler claimed that at the trial he "had to sit beside the Assistant D.A. and tell him what questions to ask. The damn fool didn't know his own case."

Chandler approached the writing business with the same attitude. He chose to write for the detective pulps because it offered the possibility of writing honest fiction. On the other hand, the slick magazines (such as The Saturday Evening Post) showed a "fundamental dishonesty in the matter of character and motivation." Chandler characterized rental libraries as a "racket" and fulminated about having to split paperback and film royalties fifty- fifty with his publisher. Literary agents were corrupt leeches who, as he entitled a scathing essay, took "Ten Percent of Your Life."

Chandler closed one of his letters about his struggles in the oil industry by saying, "Perhaps this sounds a little hard-boiled. But I wasn't like that really at all. I was just doing what I thought was my job. It's always been a fight, hasn't it?" The words could very well be Philip Marlowe's.

Chandler's detective is not an heir to the lone cowboy of the western. Marlowe is an honest man fighting to salvage a few scraps of justice out of a corrupt world, but he cannot succeed. Ultimately, the honest individual is powerless in the face of the corrupt system. Marlowe tries to keep his integrity untarnished, but his cases take him repeatedly into situations where his code of conduct can no longer function. As he says at the end of The Big Sleep, "I was a part of the nastiness now."

The Cassidy Case is only a very small part of one of Chandler's seven novels, a mere three-page digression in the middle of the story. But, he returns to it at the end of the book. Breeze gives Marlowe some leeway to operate on the murder of Anson Phillips, and after Marlowe solves the mystery, he and Breeze get together to wrap things up:

      "Remember that Cassidy case you were howling about to Spangler and me that night in your apartment?"

      "Yes."

      "You told Spangler there wasn't any Cassidy case. There was--under another name. I worked on it."

      He took his hand off my shoulder and opened the door for me and grinned straight into my eyes.

      "On account of the Cassidy case," he said, "and the way it made me feel, I sometimes give a guy a break he could perhaps not really deserve. A little something paid back out of the dirty millions to a working stiff--like me--or you. Be good."

It's not much of a moral victory, but in a city like pre-War Los Angeles, Chandler seems to be saying, it's about as good as an honest man can do.

Photograph of Greystone: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey or Historic American Engineering Record, HABS,CAL,19-BEVHI,1-1