When it was first published back in 1939, “The Big Sleep” was instrumental in developing the tropes for a different type of crime novel. In fact, Raymond Chandler’s name often appeared alongside Dashiell Hammett’s (“The Maltese Falcon”), for both writers rejected the civilized “drawing room mysteries” of writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
“The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler’s definitive essay from 1944, ably delineated the “hardboiled” detective fiction he would become known for. So does the heady introduction to this new edition of what must surely be Chandler’s best-known novel.
That introduction defines the genre crisply: “It is the mystery going native. Hard-boiled captured the violence of the twenties and the desperation of the thirties in substance, and displayed them formally in a brutal, clipped, but — in the case of Hammett and Chandler, at least — distinctly poetic style.”
Furthermore, that introduction argues, “the world according to hard-boiled is not only tough but also vibrant: a gritty, profoundly urban setting teeming with underworld life — booze, sex, drugs, violence — and the decadence of the wealthy and powerful.”
Chandler’s knight-errant journeying through this underworld of treachery and collusion is private detective Philip Marlowe. At the beginning of “The Big Sleep,” Marlowe is summoned to the Sternwood estate in Los Angeles. He meets the family’s scion in an overheated greenhouse containing moneyed General Sternwood’s overabundance of orchids: “The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty, meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.”
The general wants to settle a situation that his younger daughter Carmen is in — a situation involving, Marlowe will eventually discover, a pornography business with a bookstore as front.
Marlowe takes the case, and so begins this definitive, witty, sordid — and yet very, very stylish — hard-boiled detective novel. Its upright detective will even take it upon himself to settle the situation that Vivian Sternwood, Carmen’s sister, is in, too.
Most noteworthy of all, however is the fact that “The Big Sleep” — even after three-quarters of a century and despite one of the most convoluted plots ever devised — is still a commanding read.
This new edition is pretty commanding, too. It pays tribute to and illuminates Chandler’s great novel while expanding upon it, even for readers who might think they are familiar with the source material. Part of that has to do with the scrupulousness of the annotations and part with their presentation.
As a reader works through “The Annotated Big Sleep,” Chandler’s novel is reproduced on the left page of the open book, with annotations on the right page. Annotations never interfere with reading the novel.
Those annotations include extracts from personal letters and from source texts, particularly Chandler’s story “Killer in the Rain” — yep, he stole from himself.
Very strongly represented is the historical context of Chandler’s Los Angeles, including period maps and advertisements. There are film stills (Chandler envisioned Cary Grant as Philip Marlowe, not the iconic Humphrey Bogart) and artwork from the early pulps that first published Chandler.
There are also particularly solid considerations of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. There is even an exemplary introduction to the novel by novelist Jonathan Lethem (“Motherless Brooklyn”):
“The Big Sleep doesn’t. It never even nods.”
New readers and old admirers are going to agree with Lethem. Old admirers will find Raymond Chandler’s genius and literary importance reconfirmed. New readers will be ushered into — no they won’t, they’ll be plunged into — five days in the life of Philip Marlowe, a serious and honorable — he doesn’t carry a gun the entire novel — working man in a hard-boiled world, a man who genuinely means it when he tells one of the Sternwood sisters near the novel’s close: “The first time we met I told you I was a detective. Get it through your lovely head. I work at it, lady. I don’t play at it.”
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.