(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Decrepit South L.A. shop could help
solve this Marlowe mystery


ohn Cummings thinks he knows how to solve the mystery of Samuel Marlowe’s missing letters.

Marlowe may have been Los Angeles’ first licensed black private eye. Some believe he was a longtime friend of noir writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And Cummings, a great-grandson of the gumshoe, thinks a derelict commercial property in South Los Angeles could contain the correspondence that proves it all.

But his search of the building, which once housed his father’s appliance and thrift shop, hasn’t been easy. Although some of Marlowe’s possessions have been found there — including, tantalizingly, a handgun and bullets — much of the cluttered property has yet to be canvassed.

Step through the metal security door of the 2,800-square-foot Hoover Street building, and you’ll see why: The place is crammed with rows of beat-up filing cabinets, stacks of broken VCRs, heaps of soiled clothing and mounds of filthy steamer trunks that reach to the cobwebbed ceiling. The air is thick with dust and it’s hard to see; a portable work lamp is the only source of light.

Out back, a weedy yard is filled with piles of rusty lawn furniture, splintered desks and hulking stoves. There’s an old U-Haul moving truck, last registered in 1994, and a battered Ford Econoline 350 van.

A haul of private detective Samuel Marlowe's possessions has been unearthed at a shuttered South Los Angeles appliance and thrift store once operated by one of the PI’s relatives.

Each time Cummings visits the shuttered shop, he journeys to a bygone era. And each time, he steps into a shadowy world that looks a lot like the fictional creations of the authors Marlowe may have once known.

So far, after four forays to the building in the last year, he’s also found the PI’s address book, along with a Zippo lighter and a cache of decaying cigars. There’s the pair of miniature flags from Marlowe’s native Jamaica, and military patches that are presumed to have been earned during his World War I service in Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force. There’s an old typewriter, and pulp magazines featuring Hammett stories.

“These things need to be recorded,” said Cummings, whose father brought many of the detective’s possessions to the property after he died in 1991.

Shortly before his father died last year, Cummings asked him if he thought the PI’s files were hidden away in the building.

“He said, ‘Of course they are there somewhere, but I don’t know where,’” Cummings recalled.

He knows what it would take to find the letters.

“I would need seven to 10 dumpsters and a crew of five,” he said. “You don’t want to just throw it all out, you want to go through it meticulously.”

Surveying the wreckage of the Hoover property, Cummings insisted he would press on — not only because his efforts could change how scholars view Chandler and Hammett, but because the artifacts he hopes to find could help his great-grandfather finally get his due.

“They are extremely important pieces of African American history,” he said. “And American history.”

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