The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman

I don’t often find myself to interested in writers’ love lives, but Raymond Chandler’s does have a bit of intrigue. His marrying a woman 18 years his senior is at least unusual. So with Philip Marlowe’s chivalry in mind, I thought Judith Freeman’s The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved would be an interesting look at Chandler’s somewhat mysterious wife Cissy and their relationship, which was clearly very important to him.

Freeman was certainly taken with this relationship, but what she presents in The Long Embrace makes for a strange narrative. It turns out the Chandlers moved around a lot both before and during their marriage, living in various LA neighborhoods as well as the surrounding country and suburbs, eventually settling in La Jolla. Freeman covers Chandler and his wife through 35 moves, and her main technique is to narrate her own research efforts alongside their life stories. She drives around LA and looks for the apartments they lived in, some of which are razed, others remodeled, others apparently untouched over the decades.

While this technique is pretty standard, it’s fatal to the success of The Long Embrace. As Freeman drives around Chandler’s old haunts, disconcertingly calling him “Ray” at least half the time, she attempts to describe LA as it is now—or, as it was when she was doing this research (it’s not clear when that is). But as any Chandler fan should know, anyone else who tries to write about the city will come up short. An example:

Cissy and Ray had rented a number of places in this neighborhood, the area around the old Ambassador Hotel. The ambassador was now abandoned, closed up, and waiting for its next incarnation. The Los Angeles School District had recently taken possession of the property under the law of eminent domain, and it now appeared that the once great hotel, site of the legendary Cocoanut Grove and the place where Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in a pantry near the kitchen, was about to be turned into an elementary school for Mexican and Korean children. A great behemoth of a hotel, it was now neglected and shabby, surrounded by dying palms and parched birds-of-paradise. But once it had been the jewel of L.A. hotels. The opening-night party, on New Year’s Eve in 1921, was described as a kind of coming-out party for Southern California, with three thousand guests in attendance: as one newspaper reporter put it at the time, “The splendor of the setting for the affair probably has never been equaled on the Pacific Coast.”

There’s mostly not much wrong with this, although a stronger copyedit could have been used throughout. There are a lot of issues with verb tense; such-and-such “was now” something, where now means when the book was researched, but it also “was” something else back when “Ray” was living in LA. Or Chandler “had been” doing something, and so “had” the LA School District. Word choice is also sometimes a problem. Visiting the La Jolla house, Freeman tries “to appear inconspicuous so as not to alarm the neighbors, all of whom had signs on their premises announcing that private security agents protected their premises.” I admit I am more sensitive than average to this kind of thing, but a general tendency to drift into ambiguity and a lack of tightness point to insufficient editing. A better effort in this area would also, I think, have done much to guard against Freeman’s sometimes too-cloying attitude toward her subjects and her willingness to engage in Carry-Bradshaw-style rhetoricals (“And why was there a stronger taboo (or at least bias) against older women having romantic, sexual relations with younger men?”).

Freeman still has plenty to teach, though she frustratingly knows much more about Chandler and his life than she actually tells, making veiled references or seemingly unsupported claims about his opinions that I could probably verify with a real biography. But there is some good information about the changes LA and Southern California have gone through in the past sixty years, worthwhile insights about the psychology of Philip Marlowe, and a look into how his creator saw his own role as a writer of genre fiction versus literature. At the same time, because of the lack of thoroughness, it can seem like Freeman is coopting Chandler’s personal—and likely highly idiosyncratic—issues for her own very contemporary political ends.

No matter how much it may have changed since his time, I think I’d rather keep reading Chandler’s very own literary creation of LA.