The Annotated Big Sleep is a book well-suited to our own dark and uncertain times.
At the time of Raymond Chandler’s death in 1959, the idea that his work would end up in the American literary canon would have seemed too far-fetched to entertain. A frustrated poet educated in the European classics, Chandler was all too conscious of the disreputable position his pulp detective fiction occupied in the literary culture. Yet almost 60 years after his passing, he is widely considered to be one of the most influential prose stylists of his generation. His 1939 debut novel is now available as The Annotated Big Sleep, the latest chapter in his long critical reappraisal. It’s the first fully annotated edition of Chandler’s archetypal work of hardboiled detective fiction, released in advance of its 80th anniversary. Much like Chandler himself, this new edition straddles the line between popular and serious fiction; its editors and annotators include a poet and crime fiction author (Owen Hill), a researcher and scholar of cultural history (Pamela Jackson), and a professor of English literature (Anthony Rizzuto). This range of expertise allows them to apply a wide range of critical lenses to Chandler’s text, from close readings of its language and themes to historical background on ‘30s Los Angeles to biographical information about Chandler himself.
While the editors’ annotations draw on scholarly research—including, but not limited to, literary genre studies, classical philosophy, feminism and queer theory—their tone is never overly academic. Indeed, some of the definitions of early 20th century slang seem a little too geared toward the layest of laypeople; is any reasonably lettered reader unfamiliar with words like “prizefighter” and “sleuth?” For the most part, though, Hill, Jackson and Rizzuto achieve precisely the goal of an annotated text: To enrich the reader’s experience by adding a layer of context to the novel.
The Annotated Big Sleep draws out key themes and references which the reader may otherwise overlook: Notably, the still-relevant class commentary at the heart of Chandler’s working-class private detective, Philip Marlowe, and the web of old- and new-moneyed corruption in which he finds himself entangled. This added layer of analysis is especially welcome for a novel whose breathless pace and page-turning suspense is not naturally conducive to close, deliberate reading. Moving back and forth between Chandler’s text and the annotations may take some getting used to, but the reward is a deeper and more nuanced understanding of a book that deserves such close reading.
The novel itself remains a ripping yarn, almost against all odds. Chandler wrote The Big Sleep largely by combining two of his short stories previously published in pulp magazine Black Mask: 1935’s “Killer in the Rain” and 1936’s “The Curtain.” The result is a somewhat disjointed tale that breaks most of the rules of classical detective fiction, most notoriously leaving a plot hole—the murder of chauffeur Owen Taylor— so large that Chandler himself claimed not to know who the killer was. But the fatalistic way in which Marlowe drifts from one murder to the next, not solving a mystery so much as hurtling into the vortex of the world’s essential irrationality, speaks more to the anxieties of Chandler’s times than the tightly-wound clockwork mysteries of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Chandler’s pervading skepticism foreshadows both existential and postmodern thought, two of the major philosophical fissures of the mid-to-late 20th century, but with an essentially moral outlook that keeps it from plunging into full-bore nihilism.
All of which suggests that The Annotated Big Sleep is a book well-suited to our own dark and uncertain times. As noted above, Hill, Jackson and Rizzuto excel at bringing out the trenchant commentary at the heart of Chandler’s novel: that, as the editors paraphrase it, “power throughout the whole country is corrupt, and that wealth is above the law.” Given the present American landscape of capitalist violence, police brutality and a presidential administration whose rampant corruption is met with moral outrage but de facto impunity, the point is well taken. This edition thus does something more important than merely inducting Raymond Chandler into the literary canon: By connecting this 80-year-old novel to our most pressing contemporary concerns, it brings Chandler’s words back to life.