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Down These Mean Streets the Obsessive Biographer Must Go

Down These Mean Streets the Obsessive Biographer Must Go

NOTE: The following article was first published on February 28, 2010. Thank you to John O’Neill for agreeing to reprint these early articles, so they are archived at Black Gate which has been my home for over 5 years and 250 articles now. Thank you to Deuce Richardson without whom I never would have found my way. Minor editorial changes have been made in some cases to the original text.

Long EmbraceChandler catLiterary biographies can sometimes prove to be a peculiar form of torture. I suppose their purpose is to see if the reader is still capable of mustering the same affection for the author’s work after reveling in every personal flaw the biographer was able to uncover. Biographies are the ultimate way of evening the score with those whose talent we will never equal. They reassure us that the gifted individuals who gained immortality through their work were certainly no better and frequently even worse human beings than those of us who admire them. Thanks to literary biographies, many view the father of sword & sorcery as a clinically depressed mama’s boy angry at the world and the father of hardboiled fiction as…well, let’s face it… there was nothing you could ever say about Hammett he didn’t already tell you about himself. This article concerns itself with Judith Freeman’s biography of Raymond Chandler, The Long Embrace.

I would not say that the book is unworthy of attention. Judith Freeman is an exceptional writer. She traces Chandler’s footsteps (even though it has been more than half a century since his death) by visiting every place he lived, worked, and vacationed and describes what she finds in a voice that Chandler fans will frequently recognize. It is a voice that is as evocative of Chandler’s work as the book’s title. The trouble is that Freeman isn’t writing a new Philip Marlowe mystery so much as transposing herself in Chandler’s shoes as a fellow author and kindred spirit. As the book unravels, she comes to share Chandler’s devotion to his wife and muse of over thirty years. The result is a bit like watching Otto Preminger’s classic film noir, Laura (1944) in that The Long Embrace shifts its focus and unfolds into a growing love story between a living person and a dead woman the narrator never met. Some readers will find the result enchanting, others will just find it creepy.

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