Warner Brothers via Wikimedia Commons
We are pleased to share a review of a new annotated edition of Raymond Chandler’s noir classic, “The Big Sleep,” written by the Center’s friend and advisor Bill Lilley. He lauds the wider historical picture provided through footnotes and annotations to Chandler’s original texts introducing the iconic gumshoe, Philip Marlowe. The editors Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Rizzuto help contextualize Chandler’s hard-boiled private detective in a booming – and widely corrupt – 1930s Southern California. This review originally appeared in The Readers Exchange, which has kindly allowed us to reprint it.
Raymond Chandler wrote the Big Sleep in the 1930s. It was published in 1939. It was Chandler’s first novel. It is considered his best. The star is Philip Marlowe. He became part of the American imagination as the wise-cracking, world-weary private detective. Not enough can be said about the novel – ranked by the ever-haughty Le Monde as one of the 100 “best books” of the 20th century – or about the creation of Philip Marlowe, the smart-aleck, down-at-his-heels detective saving glamorous women from trouble.
So powerful an image is Marlowe that Americans associate Philip Marlowe with a bunch of famous names all in the business shaped by Marlowe – Sam Spade, Lew Harper, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Robert Mitchum, and Paul Newman. It is the same image, the hard-boiled private detective at work in the same place. Books or films, imagined people or real people, it does not matter if they are different, all are Marlowe working in California.
That is why The Annotated Big Sleep is such good reading, no matter how many times you read the book or see the movie. The Marlowe role works so well in the Big Sleep because of where it takes place, in Los Angeles of the 1930s. The inspired footnotes do it all for Los Angeles. Chandler’s Los Angeles quadrupled in population 1910-1930. Developers tore up desolate canyons and foothills to build new houses. The city was awash in new money from development and oil, and the oil was still being pumped next to mansions under construction.
The footnotes cite the colorful details that make Los Angeles wild, exotic, rich, dangerous and corrupt, what the annotator calls “a vast melodrama of maladjustment.” Philip Marlowe fits in perfectly. Adding veracity to the Chandler text are the numerous contemporary photographs of the cars, the fancy car dealerships, the chic women, the new money mansions, and the active oil wells. The bird’s-eye city photos and the hand-drawn maps capture an urban space at once under destruction and construction. Finally, in the Annotated Big Sleep, there is the 1946 film with Bogart and Bacall, director Howard Hawks, and screenwriter William Faulkner.
The annotated version of Big Sleep is full of information and photos of the making of the movie. Some of the photographs of Bogart and Bacall are breathtaking. The annotated book version makes clear just how good the book was. Scholars have questioned whether Chandler himself knew. Before his death in 1959, Chandler wistfully told the London Times, “I’m not going to write the great American novel.” Many think he had.