I have been having a lot of fun lately reading the annotated version of the Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. The text of the novel appears on the left side of the book while the notes are on the right. This book was annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto. Much of the material in this review is gleaned from their notes.
Raymond Chandler wrote, as Ross Macdonald said, like a slumming angel. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, was portrayed as a knight errant, searching for adventures and rescuing damsels in distress. He embodied the chivalric code.
In The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.” He also said, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
The Big Sleep, like all of Chandler’s novels and short stories, is of the hard boiled, pulp fiction, detective story genre. But Chandler was a cut above the rest. Heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, he improved upon a category of fiction that was mostly known for its lurid and salacious subject matter.
Another reason I like this book is that it gives the history of Los Angeles during and around the time period (1930s) of the novel. It also goes to great lengths to explain Americanisms, colloquialisms, slang, and genre jargon.
The Big Sleep, while a great read and a ripping good story, has a complicated plot. In this version the editors give us some guidance into Raymond Chandler’s intricate and labyrinthine novel.
I quote liberally from the novel as Chandler’s writing style is the best part of his work and the most entertaining. His use of hyperbole and exaggeration is a real gas. Also, I will be dropping some interesting asides about LA.
Los Angeles in the 1910s was the fastest growing city on earth. The population exploded 400% between 1910 and 1930. It went from 310,000 to about 1,250,000, with the greater LA County area housing 2.5 million. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was built to steal water from the Owens Valley 250 miles away. Corruption was rife. Politicians and the police often worked together with organized crime. Los Angeles was also known as a “Sin City” much like Las Vegas, with booming prostitution and gambling. According to journalist Carey McWilliams, “Los Angeles was the kind of place where perversion was perverted and prostitution was prostituted.”
“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”
Marlowe cracks wise throughout the novel. The term wisecrack dates from the 1920s and is associated with tough guy or hard-boiled fiction. The queen of the wise crack was the dame of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker, who was known to have said, “The first thing I do in the morning brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”
Carmen: Tall, aren’t you?
Marlowe: I didn’t mean to be.
Carmen: What’s your name?
Marlowe: Reilly. Doghouse Reilly.
Carmen: That’s a funny name. Are you a prize fighter?
Marlowe: Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.
Chandler considered it his duty as a writer to affirm life and liveliness against the deadly and the dull. A sentiment I have always lived by myself.
She put a thumb up and bit it. It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow, like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint. She bit it and sucked it slowly turning it around I her mouth like a baby with a comforter.
Chandler used blackmail in fourteen of his short stories and five of his novels. Blackmail was very common in LA in the 20s and 30s. As headlines show: “GIRL TRIES BLACKMAIL! CAUGHT IN POLICE TRAP!” “FUGITIVE SEIZED IN EXTORTION CASE.” “FANTASTIC PLOT AGAINST POLA NEGRI BARED” “EXTORTION PLOT SUSPECT TAKEN: STANDARD OIL MILLIONAIRE’S EX-CHAUFFEUR ACCUSED.” W. Sherman Burns, head of the Burns Detective Agency, said in 1922, “Blackmail is the big crime in America today.
The 1939 WPA (Works Progress Administration) Guide calls Los Angeles the fifth largest Mexican City in the world.
In 1904 Lincoln Stephens wrote an expose called, The Shame of American Cities. In it he states politics is business. In America, politics is an arm of business and the aim of business it to make money without care for the law, because politics, controlled by business, can change or buy the law. Politics is interested in profit, not municipalities, prosperity, or civic pride. The spirit of graft and lawlessness is the American spirit. Raymond Chandler wrote in 1934, “The typical racketeer is only slightly different from the business man.”
Ernest Hopkins wrote in Our Lawless Police, 1913, “Nothing so clearly marks our policing traditions in American cities as the use of extreme and unlawful force. In LA there exists a theory of law enforcement more openly opposed to the constitution than any I have yet encountered.”
“A life is a life.”
“Right. Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.”
There seems to be a connection between French Existentialist writers and hard-boiled fiction writers like James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond chandler. Albert Camus may have been influenced by the private investigators appearing in American detective novels like Philip Marlowe, as his portrayal of the quintessential alienated outsider Meursault in his own novel, The Stranger, clearly shows.
“I was fired for insubordination. I test very high on insubordination.” Marlowe
Marlowe is not an outlaw, but he does live by his own code, and he sometimes breaks the law by so doing. Jean-Paul Sartre says in Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on none but himself; that he alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than to the one he forges for himself on this earth.” Marlowe understands this and accepts the challenge.
Some of my favorite lines and quotes from the novel:
“I haven’t asked her. I don’t intend to. If I did, she would suck her thumb and look coy.”
“I met her in the hall. She did that to me. Then she tied to sit on my lap. I was standing up at the time.”
- “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
- The general spoke again, slowly, using his strength carefully as an out of work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.
- The next morning was bright, clear, and sunny. I woke up with a motorman’s glove in my mouth, drank two cups of coffee and went through the morning papers.
- “Well, how’s the boy?” He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.
- Vivian: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front runners, or come from behind…I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
- “She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business man’s lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of soft glowing hair. Her smile was tentative but could be persuaded to be nice.”
- Marlowe: You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who is in the saddle.
- The giggle got louder and ran around the corners of the room like rats behind the wainscoting. She started to get hysterical. I slid off the desk and stepped up close to her and gave her a smack on the side of the face. The giggles stopped dead, but she didn’t mind the slap any more than last night. Probably all her boyfriends got around to slapping her sooner or later.
- The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street Tunnel, but I didn’t move. Not being bullet proof is an idea I had to get used to.
- “Get up Angel. You look like a Pekingese.”
“I’ve been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”
“That’s how people get false teeth.”
- I made myself a drink and was drinking it when the phone rang.
- Listen hard and you will hear my teeth chattering.
- I was thinking of going out to lunch and that life was pretty flat and that it would probably be just as flat if I took a drink and that taking a drink all alone at that time of day wouldn’t be any fun anyway. I was thinking this when Norris called up.
- I was catching up on my foot dangling.
- I got out of my office bottle and let my self-respect ride its own race.
- …even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid.
- “Two coffees. Black, strong, and made this year.”
- “That makes you just a killer at heart, like all cops.” Vivian to Marlowe
- “Let’s get out of this rotten little town.” Vivian
- A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog.
- I braked the car against the curb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel. Under the thinning fog, the surf curled and creamed, almost without a sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
- “Hold me close you beast.” Vivian to Marlowe
- Her eyelids were flickering rapidly. Like a moth’s wings.
- “Killer,” she said softly her breath going into my mouth.
- She took her right hand from behind her head and started sucking her thumb.
- I didn’t have anything really exciting to drink, like nitroglycerin or distilled tiger’s breath.
- She’s a grifter, shamus. I’m a grifter. We’re all grifters. So, we sell each other out for a nickel. Okay. See you can make me.
- “Let’s dip the bill. Got a glass?”
- Canino driving fast through the rain to another appointment with death.
- …bare as hell’s back yard.
- Fate stage managed the whole thing.
- “A man has the right to live his own life.” General Sternwood
- He looked a lot more like a dead man than most dead men looked.
- You were sleeping the big sleep.
And the last line of the novel:
- On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.