Friday, February 14, 2020

Tuned to Chandler

(Editor’s note: The essay below—a tribute to that must-have 2019 reference work, The Annotated Big Sleep—comes from Janet Roger, the author of last year’s Shamus Dust [Troubador], a noirish yarn set in the City of London in 1947 and introducing Newman, an expatriate American private investigator. Roger lives on a small island off the coast of Africa, and is currently working on a Shamus Dust sequel titled The Gumshoe’s Freestyle.)

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 (1943).

I’d just finished re-reading the book, and noticed 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 details. Not more than fleeting color in the welter of Chandler’s fourth Philip Marlowe mystery. Of course they’re not, though. What reader of the time would need it explained that the country was at war, how come or with whom? 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 the war in Vietnam any longer, let alone to the attack on 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, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto have re-tuned us to Raymond Chandler.

How to read The Annotated Big Sleep? Good question. In general, its left-hand pages contain the text of Chandler’s first full-length novel. Right-hand pages feature the editors’ notes and illustrations. Both sides are irresistible. You might decide, I suppose, to read the text through and then 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. Los Angeles’ geography and history? Those right-hand notations 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 80th 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 it’s to that source I should have looked. Because their edition tells me that The Big Sleep 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 that because, if it had been known, The Annotated Big Sleep would have mentioned it. It’s that thorough. Now, following confession, a declaration of interest.

Above, left: The first edition of The Big Sleep was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1939. Right: Pocket Books’ 1954 edition, with cover art by Ernest Chiriacka (aka Darcy).

Wouldn’t you know it? When I came to write a dark, hard-boiled 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 Chandler became doyen of the hard-boiled mystery. So, while I get a special glow from being sometimes labelled Chandleresque, it’s no coincidence. After all, if you’ve got a hard-boiled 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 hard-boiled 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, 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 hard-boiled 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 hard-boiled 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 21st-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 Samuel 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 80 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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

As usual Janet is more than right on. Ray A. March