The Long Embrace

Raymond Chandler
and the Woman He Loved

By Judith Freeman

Pantheon. 368 pp. $25.95


Reviewed by Allen Barra


In his own lifetime, which began in 1888 and ended in 1959, Raymond Chandler was more private than his incorruptible private detective, Philip Marlowe. Since then, Chandler's mean streets have been shadowed by so many biographers you wouldn't think there were any clues left that the literary gumshoes haven't already stumbled upon.

In

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved

, novelist Judith Freeman (

Red Water

,

The Chinchilla Farm

) has found evidence that was all the time in plain sight. Chandler's strange 30-year marriage to a woman 18 years his senior, Cissy Pascal, and their peripatetic lifestyle in Los Angeles - tracked by Freeman with a doggedness that Marlowe would have admired - were the defining elements of his life.

In previous books on Chandler, Cissy was always a shadowy background figure, the mystery woman who went largely unexplained. Born Pearl Eugenie Hurlbert in Ohio just five years after the end of the Civil War, Cissy apparently lived a wilder life than any of Chandler's femme fatales. The evidence is strong that she posed for nude photos in her youth, and she was already into her second marriage when she met Chandler, a bachelor in his late 30s who was caring for his elderly mother.

Freeman makes ingenious connections between the details of Cissy's life and her husband's books - for instance, both the nude photos and her increasing use of drugs worked their way into

The Big Sleep

. She makes an even stronger case that "it was Ray's job to take care of a needy, vulnerable woman," creating "the sense he had of himself as her white knight" - precisely the phrase so many used to describe Philip Marlowe. Despite their age difference, James M. Cain thought them "Hollywood's happiest couple, at least before Cissy's illnesses kept them confined to home." After her death, Chandler would describe their marriage as "almost perfect."

The Long Embrace

- and was there ever a better title for a book on Raymond Chandler's life? - suggests a startling possibility: that Chandler spent his life denying latent homosexuality. "The whiff of homosexual attraction hangs over one Chandler story like a cloud of cheap aftershave." Those of us fixated on Chandler's women never quite noticed, as Freeman does, that "not getting the girl in Marlowe's case is never really a misfortune because it's never really a goal. . . . For Marlowe, a warm erotic feeling towards a woman never seems a possibility." The exception was Anne Riordan in

Farewell, My Lovely

, "whom he declines to sleep with on moral principle." Strange, too, that scarcely anyone before Freeman has pointed out that "when Marlowe does become aroused, it's by the women who have committed the most brutal murders. . . . In six of the seven novels, a murder is committed by a woman." Oddly, Marlowe himself seems to have never noticed this pattern.

From a handful of slim volumes - seven novels, a couple of story collections, scripts for two popular films - Chandler spawned a world that has mutated and evolved, from film noir in the late 1940s to graphic novels in this century. In the intervening 50-odd years, Chandler was lauded by W.H. Auden and admired by Albert Camus while managing to be ignored by most American critics.

"Chandler wrote so well about L.A., because he knew it from so many different angles," Freeman writes. She comes to some shrewd conclusions about Chandler's enduring appeal. More than any other writer, "what Chandler understood, and what he wrote about so well in his novels, was . . . that a new kind of American loneliness was born in L.A., in people who found themselves marooned in paradise, lonely amidst abundance and incredible wealth. Lonely in a seemingly incurable fashion. . . . This was the loneliness Marlowe would come to embody - a haunting sense of detachment from any sense of origin, family or roots."

The Long Embrace

may be the essential book on Raymond Chandler. Like his books, it offers a rational solution to a puzzle while at the same time retaining a sense of mystery.

Allen Barra is a contributor to the Village Voice and Salon.com.