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Two true loves

The Long Embrace Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved Judith Freeman Pantheon: 354 pp., $25.95

November 04, 2007|Richard Rayner | Richard Rayner's new book, "The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California," is due out in January. His column Paperback Writers appears monthly at latimes.com/books.

Freeman sits in bars and drinks gimlets, because Chandler claimed a gimlet "beat a martini hollow." She waits outside apartment buildings in the rain and sun. She spends months visiting UCLA's Special Collections and the Bodleian in Oxford, going through the Chandler archives. "I felt I was becoming a bit strange to myself," she tells us. Her quest turns into an obsession, and "The Long Embrace" starts to ache with emotion and loneliness -- her loneliness and Chandler's, the loneliness of following a trail, of a marriage, of writing itself.

Chandler is so much a part of the furniture that we tend to forget how great he is. The plots of "The Big Sleep," "Farewell, My Lovely" and "The High Window" are swift and workably complex, but they didn't bring much that was new to the crime story, even in their own time. He despised the lazy arrogance of wealth and power but lacked the rigor with which Dashiell Hammett viewed social and political corruption.

No, Chandler was a romantic, more like F. Scott Fitzgerald than the worldly Hammett, and through the character of Marlowe he became a haunting poet of place, this place, Los Angeles, whose split personality of light and dark mirrored Chandler's own. He caught the glaring sun, the glittering swimming pools, the cigar-stinking lobbies of seedy hotels, the improbable mansions, the dismal apartment buildings, the sound of tires on asphalt and gravel, the sparkling air of the city after rain and how the fog smells at the beach at night.

Frank MacShane published the standard Chandler biography more than 30 years ago, and until now, no other book has made us view this great American writer afresh. "The Long Embrace" does. "To take care of Cissy. That was his driving life force," Freeman writes. Chandler worked in the oil business for Cissy, and he turned himself into a crime writer for his wife, while feeling he never "wrote a book worthy of dedicating to her." Through booze, he rebelled against this bondage but never really wanted to break free. Freeman speculates, plausibly, that Chandler might have longed for men. "In 'The Big Sleep,' " she writes (she means "The Long Goodbye"), "there's simply no question Marlowe had loved Terry Lennox -- he moons after him."

Freeman traces the ups and downs of the marriage and career with utmost delicacy. We spend time with Billy Wilder and John Houseman, although "The Long Embrace" offers much more than a mere retelling. Spurred by Chandler's restlessness, Freeman writes about L.A. with a tender precision and yearning that borders on the religious. "I headed out Sunset Boulevard, past Hollywood High School and the cheap divey hotels with the leggy hookers out front, past the Chateau Marmont, where Belushi died of an overdose and the gargantuan billboards loom over the strip, the Marlboro man and his horse like gods high in the sky," she notes, describing a drive oceanward. "The farther you travel the more the air begins to change and become infused with a marine freshness. A mist develops. A faint fog appears, shot through with sunshine. A hazy light that says you're almost to the beach. You smell the coast long before you see it. You sense you're coming to the end of the land."

That's lovely, a haunting homage to a man whose own end was bleak. After Cissy died, Chandler burned her letters, perhaps wishing to keep her to himself forever. He was lost, and age dumped its garbage on him. He made an unsuccessful suicide attempt and embarrassed himself with younger women.

"[H]e became unmoored -- some might say unhinged," writes Freeman, who finds herself repeating again and again variants of the sad phrase: "He began drinking again." In "The Long Embrace," though, magic has occurred. Freeman's identification with her subject is so complete we feel we're there with Chandler too. We even believe her when she enters his dying mind, saying: "I always was a man without a home. . . . Still am." *

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