Allen Barra interviewed Judith Freeman, author of The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved, for AmericanHeritage.com.
The opening exchanges:
Read the full interview.
Raymond Chandler has been imitated, parodied, and practically plagiarized for so long that his style of detective story has practically become a cliché. Yet somehow the work not only survives but stays fresh. Just about all his books have been in print continuously since they were published. What do you think it is about Chandler that endures?
The short answer is his brilliance, which is a multi-faceted thing. There’s his humor for starters. As Christopher Isherwood observed, There’s fun in Chandler. He’s an immensely amusing writer, and readers connect with that wit. And yet he says some profound things about American society and the corruption in its institutions, how we’re a big, rough, rich, appetent society, and crime is the price we pay for our gluttony. His books contain that quality he most valued in writing, namely vitality, and it is a hard thing to fake if you don’t have it, which is why so many imitators fail. But in the end I think it’s Marlowe that gives the books their real staying power. Philip Marlowe is an enigma. He says so himself at one point. He’s vulnerable, like us, and we feel his sad good-naturedness. He’s an iconic America male, just as Marilyn Monroe was an iconic American female. And this is interesting because Chandler once said that only he and Marilyn Monroe had managed to reach all the brows — high-brow, middle-brow, and low-brow. This is another reason why Chandler endures. He reaches across the intellectual spectrum with stories that still seem fresh in their telling.
When I was at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival two years ago the writer whose name was evoked most often when taking about L.A. was Raymond Chandler. This is odd because Chandler certainly had mixed feelings about Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular. I think one of his most famous putdowns was that L.A. had “all the personality of a paper cup.” Yet he had many opportunities to move and never did. How would you sum up his strange on-again, off-again affair with the City of Angels?
He had a definite love-hate relationship with L.A. I think he loved it when he first arrived, in 1913, and it must have been a pretty idyllic place then, very different from London, the city where he’d spent much of his childhood. He really took to driving and loved automobiles. But L.A. was a place that got despoiled quite rapidly, and the banality and lack of taste in a population composed increasingly of transplanted Midwesterners — the so called hog-and-hominy crowd — began to disgust him. On the one hand, you had religious nuts of every stripe, and on the other, you had bunko artists bilking the ignorant rubes, as well as gangsters, bad cops, and corrupt politicians. Smog arrived, and stupid fads, and objects with built-in obsolescence. After a while L.A became Paradise Despoiled for him, a grotesque and impossible place to live. California, he said, was the department store state — everything in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else. He lost it as a place to set his fiction, because he had to either love a city or hate it to write about it, or maybe both, he said, “like a woman.” Eventually L.A. bored him. It became “just a tired old whore” to him. Still, he put it on the literary map. His relationship with L.A. was very symbiotic. The city gave him his material, and in return he gave it a lasting identity. No one wrote better about L.A. or captured more of its unique essence.