Thursday, January 10, 2019

Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep
(Annotations by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto)
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard/A division of PenguinRandom House LLC
The Big Sleep © 1939 Raymond Chandler © Renewed 1966 Helga Greene
Annotations and Introduction © 2018 Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto
ISBN 978-0-8041-6888-5

There’s not much to be said about The Big Sleep that someone hasn’t already said (and said better than I can).  People can, and do, argue about whether The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye is “peak Chandler,” but that seems to me to be a waste of time (and effort)—they are both masterworks of the genre, and works that any serious reader of mystery fiction should already know well.  But things do surprise me, even after multiple readings.

It’s been a long time (several years) since my last reading of the book, and I’ve seen both the Bogart/Bacall (1946, directed by Howard Hawkes) and Mitchum (1978, directed by Michael Winner) more than once since I’ve read the book.  (Both versions are excellent, and if the 1978 version sticks somewhat closed to the book, I prefer the 1946 edition).  And one thing I tend to forget is exactly how high the body count is in the book—six, counting a pivotal death that occurs before the book opens (I don’t think I’m overlooking anyone).

The plot is famously complicated (some readers/critics think it’s incoherent), and while there’s some truth to that, I’m not sure that a more streamlined plot would be an improvement. 

But my primary purpose here is to discuss the annotations, rather than the book.  I did reread the book while focusing largely on the annotations, and I will say that I’ve read a few other books like this, and in most of the others the annotations get in the way of the book.  That’s not the case here.  What Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto (HJR) bring to the book was, for me, two major and one minor thing.

The first major contribution they make is to make clear the extent to which Chandler reworked a number of his stories and incorporated them into The Big Sleep.  Most prominent among these are “The Finger Man” (Black Mask, October 934); “Killer in the Rain” (Black Mask, January 1935); and “The Curtain,” (Black Mask, September 1936), but bits of others as well.  I know, having read Tom Hiney’s biography of Chandler (Raymond Chandler: A Biography, 1997) and William Nolan’s The Black Mask Boys (1985),  that there’s some controversy about that, but, as HJR point out, Chandler didn’t expect that anyone would be reading his shorts after the pulp magazines in which they appeared had fallen apart.  Personally, I don’t see that it’s an issue; The Big Sleep all but completely transforms them.

Second, and for me, more interesting and more useful, is the terrific job they do situating the story in the Los Angeles of the 1930s (and how that LA grew out of the LA of the 1920s and before).  This is partly that they do a fine job of the geography of LA and Southern California, including how it changed over time (and the photos included with the annotations are perfect, my favorite being the photo of the Bunker Hill “traction” lift on p. 361).  They also provide insights into the nature of law enforcement, including the depth of the corruption of the LAPD at that time.

I think any reader with a serious interest in the setting of Chandler’s stories and the development of his work as a writer will find The Annotated Big Sleep invaluable.  It lives up to the high standard of Chandler’s own work.

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