The Annotated Big Sleep by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizutto (and, of course, by Raymond Chandler) with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem, came out in Summer 2018. I got my copy in early Autumn, but intentionally put the big 450+ page book aside at the time. Eager as I was to plunge back into one of my all-time favorite works from the classic era of mystery/hard-boiled crime fiction — now with the added delight of countless footnotes, annotations and period details explained along with accompanying photos — I concluded that it’d be better to linger over this gem and savor every annotated anecdote in cozy armchair comfort during the soon-to-arrive long winter nights. Now with January here, the holiday hubbub behind us and the bleakest stretch of frigid weather ahead, that plush chair and Chandler’s 1939 The Big Sleep beckons. So I’ve just plunged in.
But as I begin, I’m reminded of author Megan Abbott’s July, 2018 Slate.com essay, “The Big Sleep – Reading Raymond Chandler In The Age Of #MeToo”.
Megan Abbott begins with: “In April, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman, writing about male authors who objectify or diminish women, marveled over the many women she knows who remain ‘open to verbal entrancement’ by such men. As an example, she cited those who ‘sustain complicated and admiring relationships with lodestars like Raymond Chandler.’ Reading those words, I felt found out. Exposed.”
Abbott relates how she first discovered Chandler as a child through Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaption of The Big Sleep, then started what became her first novel in order to actually write herself into sardonic, world-weary Philip Marlowe’s world. Dial forward to Summer 2018 when, like many (myself included), Abbott eagerly waited for the release of the first ever annotated edition of The Big Sleep and Chandler’s “lushly rendered world of afternoon highballs, blackjacks hidden behind trench coats, and cunning women with teeth like knives”. But with the book in hand, she realized that “…like most women I know, I’ve been squinting hard at my attachment to certain male writers and artists, from Jim Thompson to Norman Mailer, with problematic or troubling views of women. The word complicity knocks around my brain…”
I suppose that word must knock around in most mystery/crime fiction writers’ heads. And if it doesn’t, perhaps it ought to.
It’s one thing to read mid-twentieth century favorites contextually, ever mindful that the stories were written in different times and a vastly different social and cultural landscape. And I for one think it’s dangerous to interpret such material through contemporary filters, seeing themes and subtexts lurking there that most likely never occurred to the writers themselves. So I choose not to feel any guilt when I enjoy Raymond Chandler, any more than I do when I read Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald or even Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddel novels. But as Abbott notes, “If you want to understand toxic white male masculinity , you could learn a lot by looking at noir.” The noir world – films, novels, pulp stories, comics and more – is a darkly retro place, dialed decades back to a time when gender roles are quite different. Women characters are relegated to eye candy or the occasional femme fatale…either props or fundamentally evil. Further, as mystery/crime fiction readers and fans, we delight in all the murder and mayhem. And as writers, we actually create it.
In contemporary crime fiction and thrillers, female characters are often a kind of cannon fodder, anonymous and included only to be stalked, abused, tortured or murdered. Disproportionately, women are the victims of violence that’s all too often catalogued in gruesomely fetishistic detail, frequently less as ‘crime’ and instead some kind of perversely voyeuristic titillation. So, when we relish these creepy chills as readers, or craft them as writers, are we merely compounding decades-old problems?
Hey, don’t look for answers here. If a brilliant writer like Megan Abbott struggles with complicity, I can’t expect to do any more.
But I suspect that I’ll raise this topic again in the future. This notion of complicity, that is. My own current projects are set in 1959, right on the cusp of sweeping social changes, but not quite there yet. It’s difficult to settle into a 1959 mindset and attempt to make characters, situations and dialog ring true. Sometimes succeeding can almost make me cringe. But the times were what they were.
None of that will make Hill’s, Jackson’s and Rizutto’s (and, once again, Raymond Chandler’s) The Annotated Big Sleep any less enjoyable for me. It’ll give me something to keep in mind, though. Slogging home from work through slush and ice will be almost bearable knowing that hefty book is on the end table beside a cushy chair, and at least for a few evenings I’ll be comfortably ensconced in southern California. But when I reluctantly set it aside to return to my keyboard and get back to work on my own projects, that complicity thing will be knocking around in my head, the same as it seems to do in Megan Abbott’s. And that’s a good thing… that I’m wrestling with it, that is. And we all should.