Subtitled “Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,” this unorthodox experiment in biography throws a wan but illuminating light into precisely those corners of Chandler’s life where the sources of his unique social and literary vision are to be found. What sets his corpus of novels about private eye Philip Marlowe apart from other varieties of detective fiction is the way that it blends acute strains of both cynicism and romanticism. Chandler saw bottomless corruption everywhere. He saw it not only down those “mean streets” that he famously wrote about, but also up in the Hollywood Hills and behind the neat hedges of wealthy Pasadena estates. At the same time, he summoned the hope that a man might rise above that corruption—and that, somewhere in this tarnished realm, there might be a woman who was worthy of that man’s heroism. Freeman organizes her book around two areas of inquiry that other chroniclers of Chandler’s life have explored with less than complete thoroughness. First, she looks closely at the long string of dwellings (most of them furnished rental units) that the author occupied over the course of his time as a gimlet-eyed resident of Southern California. That pattern of rootless, restless living, she suggests, forms the experiential background to the wounded-lover’s contempt for Los Angeles that hangs over his work like a sheet of smog. Second, she gives particular focus to Chandler’s wife, Cissy, the twice-divorced older woman with whom he forged a troubled yet enduring domestic alliance that spanned three decades, from 1924 to 1954. That period encompasses the prime years of his writing career, the years when he produced the series of classic titles that begins with The Big Sleep (1939) and ends with The Long Goodbye (1953). In Freeman’s telling, Cissy came to function as the unlikely muse who inspired her husband to create the hard-boiled (albeit soft-hearted) Marlowe.
A novelist in her own right, Freeman treats this project as an encounter between one imaginative intelligence and another. Here, autobiography supports—and occasionally supplants—biography. Like Chandler, Freeman emigrated to L.A. as an adult, and for her, too, the city presents a kaleidoscopic array of doleful signs and strange wonders. In recounting her efforts to visit his numerous places of residence, she repeatedly draws links to the coordinates of her own residential history. At times, her narrative descends to the level of coyly sketched trivia (as when, for instance, she discusses her internal debate on whether to bother the current resident of an apartment that Chandler rented sixty-odd years ago). In the main, though, Freeman succeeds in aligning the spirit of a place with the soul of a man’s art. From the Bunker Hill neighborhood in downtown L.A. to the city’s Wilshire District, from Santa Monica to Redondo Beach, from Big Bear Lake to Palm Springs, she follows the points that marked her subject’s wandering journey, and she connects those dots by offering a wry and perceptive account of how Chandler emerged as the ambivalent bard of his adopted city. (A frontispiece compiled by Freeman features a map of greater Los Angeles on which she has tagged and labeled each of the sites that he called home.)
In the end, however, it’s not a place but rather a person who provides Freeman with her core theme. Before Chandler dreamed up Marlowe—that knight-errant sleuth, that latter-day Sir Galahad, that would-be rescuer of wronged womanhood—he lived out an actual rescue adventure by (as he saw it) rescuing Cissy from her unhappy second marriage. Chandler’s relationship to Cissy, according to Freeman, played a hitherto under-appreciated role in his gestation as a writer. Old enough to be his mother (she was 53, and he was 35, when they married), Cissy salved the yearning for a secure human connection that he hid within his very private and often very querulous temper. She served as a queenly presence in his home, wherever that home happened to be, and she gave him a reason to keep alive his aspirations of valor. Chandler, like Marlowe, held fast to a chivalric ideal that was out of sync with the tempo of mid-century L.A. Unlike his detective hero, he was able to yoke his life to that of someone he loved.
Heroes, alas, are a lonely bunch. It goes with the territory.
[ADDENDUM: This past weekend, I was in La Jolla, California, where Chandler resided during the final decade or so of his life, and I made a pilgrimage to the oceanside house that he bought there in 1946. In the yard outside the house, there’s a dedicatory plaque; I snapped a shot of it, and I’ve inserted that image in this post. A few years back, as Freeman explains in her book, the house underwent extensive remodeling. But while the structure is apparently quite different from the one in which Chandler lived and wrote, its setting—it faces the great gray Pacific, at a slightly cockeyed angle—remains the same.]