If you're coming with virgin eyes to Raymond Chandler's first novel you are advised to ignore (for now) the footnotes and marginalia that crowd the pages of "The Annotated Big Sleep" and plunge straight into the original story, which remains after all these years a sleek and twisted and maddening thing.
Born in Chicago but, by quirk of fate, educated in England, he had some notion of becoming a writer and, toward that end, committed perfect horrors of Romantic verse before experiencing actual horror in the first world war. He married a woman 18 years his senior — the stepmother of a fellow enlistee — then climbed the ladder of a Los Angeles oil company until his chronic absenteeism, alcoholism, in-office liaisons and erratic behavior got him fired in 1931, just as the Great Depression was settling in for good.
It’s worth wondering what a noir novelist would have done with such a vexed figure. Lured him step-by-step, no doubt, into some act of sweaty desperation: a heist, a kidnapping, a murder. The real-life figure, a guy named Raymond Chandler, did something even more desperate. He became a crime writer — and to make matters even more fictional, one of the great dark bards of hard-boiled detection. It’s a reversal so triumphant that we might call it reinvention, only that would imply he actually left his underachieving self behind. Which, as the fascinating and essential “Annotated Big Sleep” suggests, he never did.
If you’re coming with virgin eyes to Chandler’s first novel — or if, by some lamentable chance, you’ve missed Howard Hawks’ scintillating 1946 film adaptation — you are advised to ignore (for now) the footnotes and marginalia that crowd this volume’s pages and plunge straight into the original story, which remains after all these years a sleek and twisted and maddening thing.
The setup is straightforward enough: Detective Philip Marlowe must find out who’s putting the squeeze on General Sternwood’s thumb-sucking nympho daughter and, if it’s not too much trouble, locate the general’s vamoosed son-in-law. But by the time Marlowe has negotiated all the molls and gambling addicts and blackmailers and pornographers and crooked cops and trigger-happy gunmen who populate this SoCal wonderland, a first-time reader may well have lost the plot’s thread.
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There is no shame in that: Chandler lost it, too. (Nobody, author included, has ever been quite sure who killed the Sternwood chauffeur.) But “Big Sleep” annotators Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto argue persuasively that Chandler’s indifference to story is not just negligence but a deliberate subversion of the classic mystery-puzzle template. Hence the “irresolute resolution” of this maiden outing, in which a killer goes unpunished and the killer’s victim goes unearthed. The disappearance that Marlowe has been trying to solve has long since been solved by others, and pretty much everything that happens over the course of this book would have happened without his intervention. “Our hero,” the editors bluntly inform us, “has saved precisely nobody.”
This may come as a shock to those of us weaned on Chandler’s own mythos — that maudlin invocation, say, from “The Simple Art of Murder”: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.” Tell that to the Marlowe of “The Big Sleep,” who, in its final pages, is gloomily flirting with death and concluding that, for all his chivalric intentions, he has become only “part of the nastiness.”
In short, this is no country for young men but a study in middle-aged epiphany, exposing its hero as someone not too different from a failed oil exec named Raymond Chandler. A guy who, on the available evidence, is both casually anti-Semitic and rather compulsively homophobic. (“A pansy has no iron in his bones.”) A big handsome fella (Chandler always wanted Cary Grant to play the part) who declines to carry a gun but makes a show of taking other people’s guns and has a curious habit of resisting the women who keep throwing themselves at him. “Won’t you please get dressed, Carmen?” he pleads, and “It’s so hard for women — even nice women — to realize that their bodies are not irresistible” and, when it comes right down to it, “Women made me sick.”
For the record, Christopher Isherwood, upon meeting Chandler, wondered if he was gay. For the record, I would never have known that if I hadn’t read “The Annotated Big Sleep.” Dive in yourself and learn, if you didn’t already know, that the book was cannibalized from two Chandler short stories — “Killer in the Rain” and “The Curtain”— and that Los Angeles harbored some 300 casinos during the 1930s and that eucalyptus trees were introduced to California by Australians during the Gold Rush. And find, in the welter of period photos and maps and news clippings, smart essays on Chandler’s interest in underworld figures and his debts to Dashiell Hammett and his philosophical kinship with the French existentialists.
Finally, though, you may have to toss Sartre and de Beauvoir over the side and return to the text itself — and to Chandler’s distinctive and enduring style, perfected in the vale of pulp magazines. “I had to learn American,” he would later recall, “just like a foreign language.” Learn it he did. Hard-boiled devotees are sure to gravitate to the famous similes: the face that falls apart “like a bride’s pie crust,” the sunshine that’s “as empty as a headwaiter’s smile,” the old man who uses his strength “as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl using her last good pair of stockings.”
But credit Chandler, too, for an eye for décor — that carpet with the “Florida suntan” — and for being wickedly funny when the mood strikes. In this vein, we grant the last word to Vivian Sternwood Regan, who, in the act of contemplating her passed-out date, murmurs: “Such a nice escort, Mr. Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become a part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but never forgotten — when Larry Cobb was sober.”
“The Annotated Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler, annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 474 pp., paperback, $25