Thursday, February 14, 2008

It's a Shame About Ray

Judith Freeman's The Long Embrace is a nasty, messy car crash of a book, a purported biography of Raymond Chandler that too often devolves into gossip or seems to have as much to do with its author as its subject. It's a gruesome, bloody wreck; a buffet for rubberneckers.

And in between bouts of wanting to hurl it at the wall, I couldn't put it down.

Freeman, a long-time Chandler fanatic, attempts to plow the uncharted waters of Chandler's personal life, and his long-time marriage to the enigmatic Cissy Pascal, a woman who, it turns out, was almost twenty years older than he was. The subtitle is "Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,' and the author hits upon a brilliant premise -- she will apply a geographical approach to her literary legwork, trying to track down each of the over thirty different locations in which the nomadic, reclusive Chanders lived in and around Los Angeles.

It's a great angle, but too often it peters out. Although Freeman has done some commendable research, in both LA and the U.K., digging up rare photos, little known anecdotes correspondence and the like, she also has a tendency towards literary and journalistic casualness that would be more at home in glossy supermarket tabloids than a hardcover biography of one of twentieth century literature's most influential writers.

Chandler was a private and obsessive man, and he destroyed most of his personal letters concerning Cissy after her death. But that's no excuse for Freeman's sometimes-fanciful speculations. The book is riddled with phrases like "could have," "probably," "possibly" and even "I'd like to think."

Was he gay? Who did he cheat on Cissy with? Did he have a leg fetish? A thing about his mother? Her ponderings are all the more frustrating because Freeman seems content to mostly raise the questions; her interest seems to dissipate the moment the subjects are broached.

And she continually refers to Chandler as "Ray." I'm not sure the proper, perpetually formal man in the bow tie who once wrote "his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry" would allow a biographer so intent on plowing through his past for dirty linen such familiarity.

Treat him as a proud man? At times she treats him like he's Brittney Spears.

Fair enough, I suppose -- everyone's entitled to their opinions and maybe even their speculations in a non-fiction work. But Freeman does herself no favours by also allowing sloppiness into the book. Photos, for example, are mis-credited in the back of the book, instead of labelled clearly where they appear within the text and Terry Lennox was not a character in The Big Sleep. She pointedly claims the novel Farewell My Lovely was filmed three times, then only discusses two versions -- making us suspect she doesn't know how to count (it was in fact filmed three times; the first version a quickie adaptation tailored to fit RKO's popular Falcon B-franchise) but it's still jarring. And when a work of non-fiction has such obvious errors, a reader can't help but wonder what else is incorrect. An errant typo or two ("to the manner born") doesn't help.

Even more disconcerting, though, is Freeman's attempt to insert herself into the story at every turn. Sometimes this meta, oh-so-po-mo approach works, but too often it doesn't. She devotes almost as much energy to telling us about the writing of the book as she does telling us about Chandler. A pattern emerges: she visits one of Chandler's old haunts, may or may not get out of her car, snaps a few pictures, laments that Chandler's LA (and even hers) is gone, recounts (or speculates upon) what was happening in Chandler and Cissy's life when they lived there, speculates a little more, and then goes off on all sorts of personal tangents, opinions and the like about the city and how it has -- or hasn't -- changed. Her cursory and lop-sided retelling of recent and not-so-recent controversiies (such as the police shooting of a thirteen-year old car thief and the Rampart scandal) are so removed from most generally accepted accounts of the incidents that they verge on irresponsible -- I wondered if she was trying to write about Chandler or incite another riot or two. Her point, as far as I can tell, is that Los Angeles has always had bad cops and corrupt politicians, but it makes you wonder if she's ever read a newspaper.

Its as if the bold, thick lines she attempts to draw between the dots of known fact are so heavy they threaten to obliterate the dots themselves.

Still, despite her narrative and literary stumbles, the book is hard to resist or to put down, and even moving at times. As I said, not all her authorial intrusions fail. Particularly her account of the sad last few years of Chandler's life, as he succumbs to alcohol and grief following the death of his beloved Cissy. Those last years are related in conjunction with Freeman's visits to Chandler's last permanent address: the La Jolla house the restless Chandlers finally settled into, where they lived together until Cissy finally passed away and where a drunken Chandler, overcome with grief, eventually tried to kill himself. It was the only house they ever owned; a beautiful, expensive home overlooking the wild restless sea.

It's a frustrating glimpse of what this book could have been, less a dry recitation of biographical facts and gossip and litany of houses that are no longer there and more an attempt at actual emotional investment in the subject. By the time Freeman tracks down the location, the building is slated for demolition and renovation. Desperate to preserve some sort of record of the home where Chandlers spent their last years together, she gets permission from the owners to videotape the home before it's demolished. The owners are absent, but their teenage daughter is home, watching television in her bedroom -- which at one time served as Chandler's study, where he wrote The Long Goodbye, The Little Sister and Playback.

"She invited us in to look around. This of course was the room I wanted to see, the study in which Ray had worked. I had seen photographs of him taken in this room. I could recognize the windows, the place where his desk had sat...The girl on the bed snapped her gum lazily as we walked around, becoming self-conscious whenever the video camera was pointed in her direction. She said she had never heard of Raymond Chandler. In fact, she said, she didn't really much like to read (preferring) movies and video games."

It's to cry.

Freeman, of course, never really nails down her subject, although she certainly tries to stir up the pot.

There's a photograph included here, a snapshot taken by Chandler of Cissy walking along a path in the woods. By this point, Chandler is well into his fifties; Cissy is in her seventies and in poor -- and rapidly declining -- health.

It is, in fact, a real find, because so few photos of Cissy exist. But, perhaps predictably, her back is to the camera. Freeman confesses to studying the photo "for a long time, as if hoping she might suddenly turn around and look at me."

Of course, Cissy never turns around. And neither does Chandler, really. It's an apt metaphor for this book.

But I'll confess right now, for the Chandler fanatic, that photo alone may be worth it.

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Blogger Graham Powell said...

I will always believe that Ross Macdonald based some characters in The Chill on Chandler and Cissy, even if I can't prove it.

I think Chandler is one of those writers who, if you've read his books, you know all about him. Every book was an autobiography.

4:08 PM, February 14, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Thanks for this review, Kevin, it's very good, unsettling, really.

"Chandler was a private and obsessive man, and he destroyed most of his personal letters concerning Cissy after her death."

I have a friend who wrote a brilliant, award-winning novel a couple of years ago (set in Montreal, in fact), but the ensuing interest in his personal life was too much and he probably won't write again.

I guess you get little sympathy for it, but when you sit down to write you dream about being "successful." The problem is, if you are, stuff like this happens. People will say, oh you'd be lucky to have those problems, but really would you?

If Chandler had his problems during his lifetime, imagine what this would do to him?

Brittney Spears may have been very young, but she (like my novelist friend) made a choice. My buddy chose not to invite further invasions of his private life and gave up the one thing he wanted to do his whole life. Brittney went along with it. How's that working out?

Chandler wasn't given the option here. He did, though, make his feelings very clear, he didn't want this kind of invasion of his personal life and this author simply ignored him. And went so far, pointing a video camera around some teenager's room while her parents weren't home and then making some off-hand remark about how she doesn't like to read?


7:47 AM, February 15, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent review Kevin, but you don't know how right you are. And wrong.

Ms. Freeman not only over uses "probably," "possibly," and "could have," she goes the other way and states things as fact when she has no proof. For example, she states that Chandler and his mother lived in Redondo Beach for four years, with Cissy in Huntington Beach, just down the road. Yea, right! 40 + miles down the road in the 1920s!

No proof is ever cited. When I asked her for the proof she emailed back that she was too busy to provide it. I took that to mean she didn't any.

Her "commendable research," as you call it, really isn't, given the lack of citations - that's where you are wrong.

The MacShane biography, the Gold Standard, says Chandler took an apartment for Cissy in Hermosa Beach while he and his mother lived in Redondo. No time period is ever mentioned, but Ms. Freeman states it WAS four years, and gets Cissy's location wrong to boot.

Well, I can place the Chandlers (mother & son) in LA in early 1920 and in mid 1923, at addresses Ms. Freeman's "research" totally missed.

I can also place Cissy in LA in early 1920. Thus there is no physical way for them to have lived at the beach, if they ever did, for four full years.

Did you know Florence took baby Ray to visit the folks in Ireland and that they returned when he was 1?

Did you know that on his return from England he arrived in Baltimore, not NY? Did you know his mother took the same ship five months later and met up with him while he was living in San Francisco? They arrived in LA together.

Did you know Chandler and his mother lived in Santa Barbara in 1916-17? Did you know Florence Chandler died in September of 1923, not in 1924? Did you know she was cremated and placed in Rosedale Cemetery, and then remove in 1940?

Did you know the Chandler's legally separated in 1930? Did you know Raymond got the car while Cissy got the furniture at the Highland Avenue address?

If Ms. Freeman's research is so commendable, how come she missed all of the above, and more?

Ms. Freeman also placed the Chandlers on North Gramercy Place. Too bad the building wasn't there when the Chandlers lived in it! I guess they camped out in the empty lot. It is a Melrose address by the way - look at the picture in her book. They actually lived several miles South on South Gramercy Place, corner of 7th Street. That building is still there.

There are over a dozen factual errors regarding just the early addresses where Chandler lived.

By the time you note all the problems, you begin to doubt everything Ms. Freeman says, even the things known to be true and verified by others.

By the way, and off topic, many of the links on your Thrilling Detective web site are bad. You should fix them.

If you want the full scoop head over to

7:33 PM, February 20, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Well, her research seemed commendable at the time, Loren, although I'm certainly not as much of an expert on Chandler as you are. She did dig up a few anecdotes I hadn't heard, and the rare photos were a treat. But I guess my suspicions were right -- if she got something as simple as the novel in which Terry Lennox appeared wrong, what else did she screw up?

As for many of the links on Thrilling Detective being "bad," well, yeah. I try to keep things current but ten years is a long haul in web time.

A list of links that are incorrect or have since moved would be helpful. Feel free to e-mail me directly anytime you come across one. I'd appreciate it. An e-mail link is at the bottom of every page.

12:04 AM, February 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book sounds as empty of Chandler as his former study.

3:47 PM, March 31, 2008  

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