The Annotated Big Sleep
“a terrific addition to your crime fiction library. . . . provides interesting insight into Chandler’s creative processes. . . . you’re going to have fun with this one.”
Raymond Chandler has long been considered the crown prince of American crime fiction. His protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is an “archetypal wisecracking, world-weary private detective who now occupies a permanent place in the American imagination.” His distinctive narrative style, featuring slang-filled dialogue, a panning “camera eye” approach to scene description, and remarkable hyperbolic similes, is much admired and imitated. His depiction of Los Angeles in the 1930s and ’40s, furthermore, cast the city “in some ways as the other major character in the Philip Marlowe novels.”
These and other insights into Chandler and his writing come to us courtesy of Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto, perpetrators of The Annotated Big Sleep, a punchy new edition of Chandler’s first novel. Originally published in 1939, The Big Sleep is on the reading list of every student, practitioner, and fan of the genre. This edition offers a wealth of supplementary information and insight that, no matter what our angle of interest, promises to elevate our understanding of Chandler’s work.
While the Foreword is largely unreadable and should have been deep-sixed, the Introduction provides an excellent survey of the critical underpinning of The Big Sleep. Chandler’s early short stories for pulp magazines such as Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Detective Fiction Weekly taught him the craft of writing and established his position as a card-carrying member of the hard-boiled club.
Not only was he following in the footsteps of Dashiell Hammett, arguably the brightest star in the American crime fiction firmament, but his harsh dissection of Los Angeles, the population of which had quadrupled between 1910 and 1930, situated him among the ranks of authors such as Paul Cain, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and Nathaniel West—all of whom cast a negative eye on the City of Angels in the 1930s.
The editors continue their critical analysis in the body of the novel. The book is set up so that the text appears on left-hand pages and corresponding notes on the right, rather than the standard approach of using footnotes at the bottom of every page. While it takes a little getting used to, it works quite well as a design choice.
As the novel progresses, the editors track Chandler’s cannibalization of his earlier stories, most notably “The Curtain” and “Killer in the Rain.” The notes mark the seams between each story segment as Chandler patched it together, rewriting as he went.
They also explain, without apology, that Chandler preferred to emphasize “individual scenes over a seamlessly woven plot,” to the extent that The Big Sleep has several holes in its story large enough to drive a truck through. Who killed Owen Taylor? Who actually did move Geiger’s body and put it back again? Frankly, Chandler didn’t really seem to care.
Notes also provide useful peripheral information, such as brief histories of the pepper tree in Los Angeles, the femme fatale archetype, and the history of Wilshire Boulevard, going all the way back to the Pleistocene animals stuck in the La Brea tar pits.
They also provide interesting and helpful translations of the slang of the period, including the various ways to tell a person to go away, what Marlowe means when he says a woman speaks “with a hall bedroom accent,” and the etymology of “bum,” from the German bummelyn, to waste time.
Some notes are puzzlers in their own right, though. If a young reader is stumped by Chandler’s use of the word “comforter,” given the contextual reference to an object in someone’s mouth, noting that the object is “a pacifier” might not be especially illuminating. As well, informing readers that “son of a bitch” is an epithet also found in medieval Arthurian tales and in Shakespeare seems not to enhance our reading experience of The Big Sleep all that much.
On the other hand, the many parallels drawn between the novel and its movie versions, particularly the Howard Hawks production starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, are entertaining, and the note bracing the difficult subject of violence against women in The Big Sleep, and in hard-boiled crime fiction in general, was necessary and appropriate.
The Annotated Big Sleep is a terrific addition to your crime fiction library. If you’re a student and The Big Sleep is on your reading list, then you’ve hit the jackpot. If you’re a practitioner of the art of crime fiction, this edition provides interesting insight into Chandler’s creative processes. And if you’re a fan, well, you’re going to have fun with this one.