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“The Annotated Big Sleep”

A book by Raymond Chandler, annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto

 ‘The Big Sleep doesn’t,’  Jonathan Lethem writes in the foreword to “The Annotated Big Sleep.” “It never even nods. Flip the book open anywhere and it winks, leers, bristles, sulks, and sneers—in every line. …” That’s a pretty good review of the greatest private eye novel ever, written 79 years after its publication. If you’re looking for an excuse to reread it or if you’ve ever wondered why the reputation of Raymond Chandler and his first novel endures, start here.

Footnotes are probably the last thing Chandler envisioned for any of his novels, but the notes by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto—all writers and editors and fans—form a companion to “The Big Sleep,” offering background, context and color.  

I don’t at all mind the interruptions that discuss Chandler’s education at Dulwich College in London (where one of his classmates was P.G. Wodehouse), his adventures in Hollywood screenwriting or the leisurely strolls through Philip Marlowe’s Los Angeles. (“As part of the research for this edition, the editors abandoned their cars and tried to follow Marlowe’s footsteps, to no avail.” Alas, they made it only part of the way as their path was blocked by “a corporate, multi-story shopping mall at Hollywood and Highland.” There’s got to be a metaphor in that.)  

This “Big Sleep” isn’t just annotated. It’s illustrated with covers of Chandler’s first editions, movie posters from the Marlowe books, the only known photo of Chandler with the man who created and perfected the hard-boiled school of crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett (you will spot them immediately: the only writers in the photo not looking into the camera), and photos of real locations that serve as crime scenes in the book. My favorite is of Malibu Pier—to paraphrase Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City,” the Pacific Ocean was really something back then.

Click here to read long excerpts from “The Annotated Big Sleep” at Google Books.

It’s a pleasure to revisit the tight, hard-boiled (and I would like to see this overused phrase retired from American lexicon) dialogue, such as these jewels from Marlowe:

“I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”

“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination.”

“Once outside the law, you’re all the way outside.” (Though I question the wisdom of this statement. Which of us hasn’t been outside the law at one time or another?)

The following aren’t from “The Big Sleep,” but the annotators quote them, and I can’t resist mentioning them:

From “Farewell My Lovely”: “I like smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin.”

From “The High Window”: “On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.”

The modern American hard-boiled writing style popularized in the 1930s—and I swear I’ll never use that term again—is supposedly based on American speech. Yes, but we don’t really talk like the characters in Chandler’s books. We only wish we did.

One of the delights of reading “The Big Sleep” again is being reminded of all the ways in which it differs from the mystery/crime pulp culture it helped bring into the American mainstream. For instance, the trench coat. Bogart made it iconic in Howard Hawks’ film version of “The Big Sleep”; he seems to have worn the same one in “Casablanca.” But the annotators note that the Marlowe of the book wore it “not for fashion but because it’s raining.” There’s no mention of the famous fedora and, unlike the legion of private eyes who followed him, Marlowe was smart enough not to carry a gun (he did keep one in the glove box of his car).  

Another key point is that, despite Chandler’s acknowledged debt to Hammett, Marlowe isn’t a clone of “The Maltese Falcon’s” Sam Spade. (Of course, also portrayed by Bogart in John Huston’s film adaptation.)  Marlowe’s “not the stereotypical hard-boiled detective”—and I swear never to use that term again—“but he puts on the identity when it suits him. It doesn’t always suit him.”

I’m grateful to “The Annotated Big Sleep” for finally explaining who killed the chauffeur Owen Taylor, a character whose murder goes unexplained in the movie—though I’ll be damned if I can remember why he was killed—and then for making clear that plot is not the issue with Chandler. As Marlowe wryly observed in “The Big Sleep,” “I’m not Sherlock Holmes.” (I’ll figure out the plot to “Inception” and “Mulholland Drive” before I ever solve “The Big Sleep.”)

Chandler’s atmosphere is not for everyone. In his “Lectures on American Literature,” Jorge Luis Borges sniffed that “The atmosphere in these stories [Chandler and Hammett] is disagreeable.” It sure is. As Wilfrid Sheed wrote, “Chandler had a foreigner’s sense of the strangeness of America,” and this went double for Los Angeles, a city that was still taking shape and was a little strange to just about everyone. You expect evil to ooze out of the gutters of New York and Chicago, and even Hammett’s San Francisco, but it took a truly poetic sensibility to see it in the decadence of the sun-washed streets and hills of L.A., a city he once described as “having all the personality of a paper cup.” Sheed again: “Chandler could not describe a laundromat without freighting it with corruption and menace.”

Hill, Jackson and Rizzuto make clear Chandler’s immense debt to Ernest Hemingway, whom he regarded as the greatest American novelist—namely short, brushstroke sentences and vivid compressed language. (No less than Evelyn Waugh thought Chandler to be America’s greatest novelist, and W.H. Auden would surely have seconded that. T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene and Christopher Isherwood would also have ranked him near the top. It’s even been said that Albert Camus’ style in “The Stranger” was influenced by Hemingway and Chandler.)

Hemingway dismissed satires of his work, writing, “The greater the work of literature, the easier the work to parody.” Maybe. At any rate, Hemingway is surely the most parodied American writer. Chandler, who well may be the second most parodied, was having a little fun—God knows, a rare impulse for him, and, in his own way repaying the debt when he wrote this, inspired by Papa’s story, “Big Two-Hearted River”: “Hank unscrewed the top of the toothpaste tube, thinking of the day he had unscrewed the lid of the coffee jar, down on the Pukauuk River when he was trout fishing. There are larches there, too. It was a damned good river, and the trout had been damned good trout. They liked being hooked. Everything had been good except the coffee, which had been lousy. He made it Watson’s way, boiling it for two and a half hours in his knapsack. It had tasted like hell. It had tasted like the socks of the Forgotten Man.”  

Let’s be generous and assume that S.J. Perelman intended an homage to Chandler with his piece in The New Yorker, “Farewell My Lovely Appetizer”: “Her bosom was heaving, and it looked even better that way … a thin gallot with stooping shoulders was being very busy reading a paper outside the store. … He hadn’t been there an hour ago, but then, of course, neither had I.”

To my ear, the best comic Chandler was from Steve Martin and Carl Reiner in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.” Sample: “It was the kind of place where rich men went to meet rich women to make rich babies.”

Mickey Spillane once told an interviewer, “If Thomas Mann sold, I’d write like Thomas Mann.” I think Sarah Palin with a laptop could come closer to Thomas Mann than Mickey Spillane (though I think the Mick envied Tom for the title, “Death in Venice”), but I also don’t think that Mann could have written good crime stories. It’s tougher than it seems. Raymond Chandler wrote better than Mickey Spillane or maybe Thomas Mann and possibly as well as John Banville, who, in his novels about the Dublin coroner Quirke, written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, tries his damnedest to write like Chandler.

Banville would seem to be an odd choice to write a Philip Marlowe novel, and not just because he can lay claim to being the greatest living novelist in the English language. In a 2008 issue of Bookforum, Banville wrote about his love of pulp but dismissed Chandler: “I consider the Marlowe books forced and even a touch sentimental for all their elegance and wit and wonderful sheen. … Chandler perhaps labored too long and too hard at effecting the transmutation of life’s raw material into deathless prose.”

Sentimentality is a strange charge to make by an author whose Irish protagonist Quirke indulges in Jameson-soaked self-pity about three times in a novel. But Banville must have had a change of heart about Chandler over the next couple of years. Why else would he write a Marlowe novel—“The Black-Eyed Blonde”—in a feat of what The Guardian called “literary ventriloquism,” and why try so hard to re-create Chandler’s prose? And he did a good job: His Marlowe, talking to us in Chandler’s familiar first person, tells us:

“Her hair was blonde and her eyes were black, black and deep as a mountain lake, the lids exquisitely tapered at their outer corners. A blonde with black eyes—that’s not a combination you get very often.”

That’s Chandler’s rhythm, cadence and punctuation. Perfect.

“Sometimes I think I should lay off cigarettes for good, but if I did that, I’d have no hobbies except chess, and I keep beating myself at chess.”

“A guy came in who looked so much like Gary Cooper that it couldn’t have been him.” It might have been funnier if he’d used Bogart, but Cooper works fine.

“She was one of those women whose sister would be beautiful, though she just missed it herself.”

That a novelist of Banville’s prestige would take on Marlowe is perhaps the greatest indicator of Chandler’s influence. Chandler’s oeuvre is meager for a crime writer or really any prominent writer: just six novels, a couple of story collections, the film script for Billy Wilder’s adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” some dialogue for Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” and a very famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” which defined the American hard-boiled (I’m sorry, but there are just no synonyms for this) style, and gave us and Martin Scorsese the phrase “mean streets.” No other American writer has had so much effect with so little output.

For millions around the world, many of whom don’t even read mystery or crime stories, he defined a genre, a city and a style.

As the annotators write, “ ‘Noir’ hadn’t been invented when Raymond Chandler was writing these stories, except to the extent that he, with other hard-boiled writers”—absolute promise, will never use again—“was inventing it himself.” Chandler has had many imitators but no real heirs. He didn’t invent his genre (and I’m not going to say hard-boiled again), but in perfecting it, he exhausted it, though in “Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem has grafted the American detective story to sci-fi and done a creditable job of replicating Chandleresque dialogue—more of a tribute, really, than a parody. Lethem’s private eye gets strong-armed by a killer kangaroo (don’t ask, just read the book):

“So you and Danny are real cozy, right? So you can get a message back to him?”


“Tell him next time he wants to talk to me, don’t send a marsupial.”

As Lethem’s writing indicates, the real echoes of Chandler are found not in modern crime fiction but in serious writers such as Haruki Murakami (“Philip Marlowe is Chandler’s fantasy, but he’s real to me”), film (from Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” to that screwball mutation, the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski”), and even poetry. The late Alabama poet Diann Blakely borrowed the title of Chandler’s second-best novel for her 2000 collection of noirish-themed verse, “Farewell, My Lovelies.” And this is from Margaret Atwood’s “In Love With Raymond Chandler,” in which Atwood captures Chandler’s genius for mise-en-scène: “I think of his sofas, stuffed to roundness, satin-covered, pale blue like the eyes of his cold blond unbodied murderous women, beating very slowly, like the hearts of hibernating crocodiles. …”

“I’m not going to write the great American novel,” Chandler once said. But he did write a great novel about America.

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