THE LONG EMBRACE: RAYMOND CHANDLER AND THE WOMAN HE LOVED
By Judith Freeman
Pantheon, 353 pages, $25.95
Casting about for something new to say about Raymond Chandler—exemplar of the hard-boiled school of crime fiction, creator of iconic private eye Philip Marlowe, author of such classics of the genre as The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely—novelist Judith Freeman hit upon the idea of writing about Chandler’s three-decade marriage to his much older wife, Cissy. Why did Chandler marry a woman almost his mother’s age, two weeks after his mother died? And why did the couple then change residences more than 30 times in 30 years?
Unfortunately, not much is known about Pearl Eugenia “Cissy” Hurlburt Chandler—Ray burned all their correspondence after her death, along with some racy photos she’d posed for in her misspent youth as an artist’s model in Harlem—and this leaves her would-be biographer to fill 327 pages much like an impromptu hand-shadow artist vamping in front of a filmless projector. Ms. Freeman tediously visits all 30-plus residences, only to find most of them demolished, locked up or otherwise inaccessible. (After half a century? Who’d have thought?) She tells numerous stories, neither interesting nor relevant, about herself. She indulges in the temptation every fan of Chandler must resist: the urge to do a bad Chandler impression, sometimes by coining tough-sounding but tin-eared similes, sometimes by pretending that her visits to a batch of old apartments makes her a heroine out of one Chandler’s detective stories, and sometimes both. “I drove around,” she writes, “[like] a cat burglar casing the joints.” (You get the sense that she feels very brave for taking a trip up to Harlem at one point. She tells us she needs “a hot bath” afterward.)
When all else fails, she just makes things up. Like the lowest tabloid scribbler, she peppers the book with lurid speculation phrased passive-aggressively in question form: “Could Cissy over a period of years have developed an addiction to mood-altering or pain-killing drugs?” “Was the secret he alluded to an affair?” She drops the big one at the book’s midpoint: Was Raymond Chandler gay? (“The whiff of homosexual attraction hangs over the story like a cloud of cheap aftershave.”) She admits she doesn’t have much basis for these accusations—“I had nothing more than a suspicion”; “The evidence for this deduction is admittedly flimsy”—but that doesn’t stop her from trafficking in juicy, page-filling innuendo. “Whether any of this really fits with Chandler’s life,” she writes, “who can say?” Who, indeed.
In fairness, not all the charges come wholly out of thin air. The gay rumors, for instance, began during Chandler’s life, when he was attacked for writing gay-coded prose by the marvelously named Gershon Legman. And there’s no question that Chandler was a drunk, a depressive, a failed suicide—these things are well known. But did his wife really do housework in the nude because she was a devotee of the strange German regimen Ms. Freeman has turned up (“the Mensendieck System”), or just because it’s hot in California and sometimes you don’t feel like getting dressed?
The Long Embrace is at its best when it quotes Chandler—either his novels or his surviving correspondence. Ms. Freeman poignantly evokes Cissy’s last days, slowly dying (“by half-inches,” Chandler wrote) of fibrotic lung disease while Chandler was working on his finest novel, The Long Goodbye. But Ms. Freeman adds little to the primary sources here. Readers interested in getting to know Chandler and his wife would do better to read one of the many editions of his collected letters (the Library of America Later Novels and Other Writings volume is a good starting point) and to leave the breathless possibility that Ray Chandler was a sexually repressed, adulterous, leg-fetishizing mama’s boy to Judith Freeman, Gershon Legman and their ilk.
Charles Ardai is the founder and editor of Hard Case Crime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.