Judith Freeman

"The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage DEC 3, 2008)

"From the beginning his narrators were bards of urban decadence. There was a sense of sleaze—flea-bitten hotels, night clerks with dirty fingernails, characters in rumpled suits in need of a shower. The early stories were as coolly dispassionate as the later novels, and the hero was just as sardonic, just as detached. Yet the evil was never gratuitous. The violence and corruption was always rooted in the complexities of the human personality. That’s where the stories got their power. From the characters."

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved by Judith Freeman

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved is likely to receive mixed reviews from its readers. Chandler is one of noir’s seminal writers, and fans of noir will seek out this nonfiction book hoping for insight into the life and mind of the gifted and troubled man responsible for refining this phenomenal genre. While those insights into Chandler are present, these observations are also blended with the author’s meditative, imaginative approach. The Long Embrace is not a biography of Chandler by any means, so if you’re hoping for that, you are destined to be disappointed. Freeman’s boldly different and highly personal approach to her subject is a journey that concentrates on understanding Chandler’s relationship with his much older wife, Cissy through the couple’s odyssey through the L.A area.

Noir fans are a devoted lot. We tend to be fanatics who live, eat, and breathe the genre, and similarly author Judith Freeman admits she “had become obsessed with Chandler.” This obsession shows in every page—whether she’s poring over Chandler’s letters, tracking down the location of one of his many homes, or simply sitting in a lonely bar sipping a gimlet. Admitting that this obsession began in 1986, Freeman became “caught up” in other projects but her fascination with Chandler’s relationship with his wife simmered away in the back of her mind and continued until she decided to write a book through which she would be “free to imagine their lives.”

Freeman states that as she “read about Chandler, the more interested” she became in Cissy, and she believes that this unique relationship seeped through into his writing. Biographical information in the book follows Chandler’s early beginnings in America, his employment as an accountant at Dabney Oil, his acquaintance with married woman, Cissy Pascal, and Chandler’s illicit romance with Cissy. Cissy, who was older than Chandler by eighteen years, lied about the fact on the marriage certificate. Freeman painstakingly tracks down details that still survive of the Chandlers’ tumultuous relationship--Chandler’s love affairs with other women, Cissy’s supportive encouragement of Chandler’s budding writing career, and Chandler’s drinking binges.

From poring through the return addresses on Chandler’s letters, Freeman discovered the astonishing fact that Chandler and Cissy moved more than thirty times in the thirty years of their married life. The sheer number of moves involved struck the author as peculiar, and she decided to hunt down each of their residences. There’s even a map that marks the Chandlers’ nomadic lifestyle as they moved back and forth, and Freeman tracks these moves and searches out each address, frequently including some marvelous black and white photos with the text.

The Long Embrace is as much a journey for Freeman as it is for the reader. Freeman does not take an authoritative approach, but instead it’s quite clear that the book is written because her curiosity is piqued into an obsession with the Chandlers. As the book unfolds, Freeman shares her unexpected finds, her discoveries, and her opinions as they alter from what she thought to what she discovers. In many ways this book is not just about Chandler but also about the world he inhabited--a world that’s rapidly fading from our view. Chandler’s world, “ a place of extremes and addictions, cults and corruptions, hedonism and strangely virulent Puritanism” fed material to the novels, but Freeman notes, “toward the end of his life, Chandler came to feel that L.A had become a grotesque and impossible place to live.” As Freeman tracks down the many apartments and houses the Chandlers rented throughout the L.A area, she discovers that some are still standing, some are derelict and abandoned, and some are long gone, making way for brand new structures. In one case, a home lived in by the Chandlers has been replaced by a Latino market, a unisex beauty salon, and an evangelical church. Some of the locations are in the process of decay or gentrification even as the author researches the book.

The text often digresses into meditative passages as the author recalls events from her own past and occasionally she imagines the Chandlers in various locations. In one section, Freeman includes a group photograph of the employees at Dabney Oil, and speculates which girl in the photo could have been Chandler’s lover. I’ll admit that these were not my favorite sections of the book, but at the same time, I could understand exactly what the author felt, and no doubt if I got my hands on the photo from Dabney Oil, I too would have pored over the picture wondering who was "the other woman.” Beautifully and fluidly written, Freeman understands and appreciates Chandler’s style, and in many of Freeman’s descriptive passages, she complements Chandler’s sense of place and time. Ultimately The Long Embrace is Freeman’s journey to understanding the Chandlers, and it’s up to us to decide if we want to go along for the ride.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved at author's website

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About the Author:

Judith FreemanJudith Freeman is a novelist, essayist, critic and short story writer, author of four novels and a collection of short stories. Her essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. She teaches in The Masters of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California and has been a writer-in-residence at various workshops around the country. Red Water was chosen as the #1 book of the Southwest in 2002 by the Tucson Book Review, and also short-listed for the Mountain and Plains Booksellers’ award.

Judith lives in Los Angeles and rural Idaho, dividing her time between an apartment in the MacArthur Park area of the city and a small farm on the Camas Prairie with her husband, artist-photographer Anthony Hernandez.

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