(Pantheon, 368 pages, $25.95)
By Judith Freeman
Raymond Chandler was the first accomplished novelist to chronicle the sprawling neighborhoods, warring citizens and sunlit corruption of mid-century Los Angeles. His novels, featuring the knight-errant operative Philip Marlowe, became the template for the modern detective story, and the postwar cinema’s most enduring archetype. From Hawk’s The Big Sleep and Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet to Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Chandler may have indirectly influenced as many directors as he did writers. And although he hated his encounters with Hollywood, he had a hand in writing some very good movies, including Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia and Strangers on the Train.
The novelist and scholar Judith Freeman has nursed a lifelong obsession with Chandler, alongside a fascination with the most mysterious and important figure in his life, his wife Cissy. She was a turn-of-the-century New York bohemian and former artists’ model who was 18 years her husband’s senior (Chandler thought her only eight years older when they married). She was his constant companion during their peripatetic years in Southern California between 1912 and her death in 1954. After Cissy’s demise at age 84, Chandler, then 67, burned all the letters they had ever exchanged. This gaping hole fired Freeman’s imagination and fuelled her search for Cissy’s ghost, as if she were one of Chandler’s many fugitive women, the Little Sister, perhaps, or one of the Sternwood sisters.
The result is an enthralling academic detective story with a marked and no doubt intentional resemblance to one of Chandler’s novels. Freeman started out by collecting every known address the nomadic Chandlers ever inhabited. Although they barely left California during their long marriage, they uprooted as often as twice a year, moving around in L.A. itself, with sojourns in Big Bear, Arrowhead, Palm Springs and Riverside, before finally buying a house in La Jolla. Freeman, who has an enviable grasp of the history and geography of the city, visits all of these places, meditating on how they have changed and how they might have appeared when the Chandlers lived there.
Although Freeman disavows any strictly biographical ambitions, The Long Embrace—a note-perfect Chandlerian title—may, for all its speculative asides, penetrate the heart and soul of this strangely bunkered and mutually reinforcing partnership better than any of Chandler’s actual biographers. And, not coincidentally, the book is a beautiful and heartbreaking symphony of the city itself—its impermanence, its protean development, and its bleak, sun-whipped beauty. It’s this year’s finest book about Los Angeles.
Review written by John Patterson.