THE ANNOTATED BIG SLEEP
By Raymond Chandler
Annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto
Vintage Books, $25, 512 pages
“Raymond Chandler once wrote that ‘some literary antiquarian of a rather special type may one day think it worthwhile to run through the files of the pulp detective magazines’ to watch as ‘the popular mystery story shed its refined good manners and went native,’” the editors of “The Annotated Big Sleep” write in their introduction of the late, great Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel.
“He might have said, as the genre of detective fiction kicked out the Britishism and became American. A chief agent of this transformation was Raymond Chandler himself. ‘The Big Sleep’ was Chandler’s first novel, and it introduced the world to Philip Marlowe, the archetypal wisecracking, world-weary private detective who now occupies a permanent place in the American imagination.”
The editors note that in their annotated edition of “The Big Sleep” they trace the many veins of meaning into the intricate novel, which they call “a ripping good story.” The editors inform us that Raymond Chandler (July 23, 1888 March 26, 1959) did not think of himself as primarily a “mystery” writer, calling his novels and stories only “ostensibly” mysteries. But his work was confined within the limitations of genre fiction during his lifetime and many years after, even though he was lauded while he was alive by W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene and Christopher Isherwood.
But today, as the editors point out, Chandler is taught in university courses and Le Monde voted “The Big Sleep” one of the “100 Books of the Century.” The novel was also made into two films, with Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe in the 1946 film, and Robert Mitchum portraying Philip Marlowe in the 1978 film. (Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner and many other actors have portrayed Philip Marlowe in films based on Raymond Chandler’s other novels).
Unlike his great predecessor, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler was not an ex-detective, and he didn’t associate with police officers, racketeers or grifters. He was born in Chicago, but he was raised in Nebraska, England and Ireland and he attended Dulwich College, where he studied languages and the classics.
He served in the Canadian infantry in World War I and he ended up in Los Angeles in 1913. After he was fired from his job as an oil executive due to his drinking and other offenses, he became a regular contributor to the pulp magazines at the age of 45. His first short story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” was published in 1933. Raymond Chandler’s first novel, “The Big Sleep,” was published in 1939. The novel sold about 10,000 copies in two print runs for Knopf. The novel was not a best-seller, but it sold more than the average mystery novel.
“I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.” So begins the well-known and celebrated opening that introduces the reader to Philip Marlowe, the first-person narrator of “The Big Sleep.”
The big sleep is a metaphor for death and it is the first of many fine metaphors and similes that Raymond Chandler employs in his novel. “The Big Sleep” is a novel about organized crime, blackmail, gambling, drugs, alcohol, sex, wealth, family secrets and murder. Philip Marlowe’s narration and running commentary on everyone he meets and everything he encounters is timeless. Marlowe is an incorruptible modern knight in a corrupt world.
As the editors note, the city of Los Angeles was in many ways Raymond Chandler’s other major character alongside Philip Marlowe. “Its character was set by its sudden expansion, and also by the greed and self-promotion that went with it,” the editors write. “It was a city of excess, escapism (Hollywood!), tawdriness, exhibitionism, and corruption.”
Along with the classic crime story, the editors of “The Annotated Big Sleep” sprinkle the book with the historical context of Raymond Chandler’s LA, and they offer extracts from his letters, an analysis of the novel’s characters and plot, and facts about the films made from the novel. The book also offers photos and maps. “The Big Sleep” remains a classic crime novel that is discovered by each new generation of crime aficionados (I first read it as a teen-age crime-fiction aficionado in the early 1960s) and the novel continues to inspire crime writers and film makers.
“The Annotated Big Sleep” not only delivers a great novel, it also provides a literary and historical treatise on the life, times and work of one of America’s greatest writers, Raymond Chandler.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.