Updated: Mar 25
Just recently in the Rap Sheet I wrote something on historical fiction, about how fast the world of a novel dates, and how soon its commonplaces become entirely lost on another generation of readers. To give an idea of how much gets lost, and how fast, I took one of my for instances from Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake.
I’d just done re-reading the book, and noticing something that hadn’t really struck me before. I mean those references to the small matter of a Second World War going on in the background. There’s mention of the dim-out and tire rationing. The military is guarding a dam. A cop shrugs that in two weeks more he’ll be in the army. But they’re passing detail. Not more than fleeting color in the welter of Chandler’s fourth Marlowe mystery. Of course they’re not. What reader of the time would need it explained that the country was at war, how come or who with? And there’s the problem, for any novel that stays the course long enough to be read by a later generation. For readers now, not close to war in Vietnam any longer let alone to Pearl Harbor, those details of civilian wartime and a lot else besides, will go flying over their rooftops - until, I wrote, an annotated Lady in the Lake arrives to explain it. After all, don’t we have The Annotated Big Sleep now?
We do indeed. And it’s splendid. Editors Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson & Anthony Dean Rizzuto have re-tuned us to Raymond Chandler.
How to read The Annotated Big Sleep? Good question. In general, left-hand pages are the text of Chandler’s first full-length novel. Right-hand pages are the editors’ notes and illustrations. Both sides are irresistible. You might decide, I suppose, to read the text through and get back later to the glosses and commentary. But I don’t have that kind of willpower.
Those right-hand pages are addictive. And since it’s Chandler who’s under investigation, the delivery has proper brio. The Romantic Tradition and Literary Modernism? Philip Marlowe’s debts are noted. LA’s geography and history? They illuminate as they should. There are who-knew? asides. One of them recalls that the city once had a world-beating streetcar system, hence the scenes in The Big Sleep where we hear them passing by. And of course we get clarity on legion points of detail. Which reminds me. I have a confession.
In another excursion recently, this time to mark The Big Sleep’s eightieth birthday in CrimeReads, I wrote that the first Marlowe novel had been published by Alfred A. Knopf, in October of 1939. Not so. Wherever I got that date from - it’s not one I memorize - it wasn’t from Hill, Jackson and Rizzuto. But I should have. Because their edition tells me that the book was in fact first published in the United States on February 6, 1939, and then a month later in Britain. It was noon, New York time. Blanche Knopf had breakfasted on her usual honey toast with a glass of Ceylon tea, straight, no milk. Actually, I made that last part up. Mrs Knopf’s breakfast routine is unknown. I know it’s unknown because, if it had been, The Annotated Big Sleep would have mentioned it. It’s thorough. Now, following confession, a declaration of interest.
Wouldn’t you know it? When I came to write a dark, hardboiled tale of my own, Shamus Dust turned out to be a late 1940s cocktail of disillusion, laced with civic corruption, the rackets, murder and police complicity. The 40s, of course, being just that decade when Raymond Chandler became doyen of the hardboiled mystery. So, while I get a special glow from being sometimes labelled Chandleresque, it’s no coincidence. After all, if you’ve got a hardboiled cocktail in the shaker, Chandler pours them like no other. End of declaration of interest.
Chandleresque? I can’t say I ever spelled out what it meant myself. I’d simply read and re-read the Marlowe novels since I was a teenager - not so long after they were written as I like to remember - until they felt like an element I swam in. But measure by measure, page by page, The Annotated Big Sleep does spell out the meaning of Chandleresque, and makes a case that fascinates just as much as it convinces.
There are the familiar devices, obviously, that orientate the reader. Can’t imagine Chandler without the gumshoe, a femme fatale, the blondes? Fine, you’re up and running. Add blackmail, hard liquor and the camera eye and you’re still hardly started on the accessories. Really, you’re not. But no matter, The Annotated Big Sleep has them covered. It considers the hardboiled conventions, before Chandler and since. Along the way it settles that he’s rarely an inventor - not even when he thinks he might be. And it establishes - no question - that he had a genius nonetheless, for shifting those familiar devices up through the gears into art.
Then again of course, there are the fault lines. The Annotated Big Sleep spells those out too, because Chandler is complicated. A Victorian by birth and by disposition, apprenticed to the pulps in the Depression era, he liberated the hardboiled form through talent and technique, and at the same time consorted with its casual prejudices. The editors’ analysis of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity fits The Big Sleep flush in the mainstream of the hardboiled purview: simply put, if you’re looking for a fair shake as a developed character in a Chandler story, it helps no end to be straight and white and male. Which can not only make for some queasy twenty-first century reading; if you’re thinking of writing something Chandleresque nowadays, there’s a problem to solve.
Let’s end where we started, on those Rap Sheet musings. With Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Thomas Hardy’s Tess (1891) in mind, I wrote: “Read either of them in an edition that supplies an expert guide, and the wonder at being enlightened mixes with being appalled by how much we didn’t know we were missing.” Better add The Big Sleep (1939) to that company. Seriously - and even though we’re scarcely more than eighty years on - don’t skip the wonder of this annotated edition, with its foreword by Jonathan Lethem. You won’t ever know what you’re missing.
This article was first published by J Kingston-Pierce in The Rap Sheet on 14 February 2020.
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Since it spun off from January Magazine to become a separate blog in May 2006, The Rap Sheet has earned its reputation as an essential resource for readers seeking information about what’s new and interesting in the world of crime fiction. It covers crime, mystery, and thriller fiction both recent and vintage, appearing in all media—print as well as broadcast. Edited and written mostly by J. Kingston Pierce, the site has been nominated twice for Anthony Awards, and in 2009 it won the Spinetingler Award for Special Services to the Industry. Remarking on the blog’s value, novelist and editor Ed Gorman wrote in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: “Part pure journalism, part critique, and part just plain fun, The Rap Sheet is a tribute to the intelligence and wit of a single person. Pierce gives opinionating a good name.” In a post of her own highlighting blogs that provide “good crime fiction recommendations,” critic Sarah Weinman described The Rap Sheet as “one of the oldest ... and still one of the best …” The Rap Sheet currently receives 1,500 to 3,500 hits each day, ranking it among the most consistently popular blogs of its kind.