So, I’m not particularly familiar with Raymond Chandler, but for crime fiction fans he’s basically God. Anthony Burgess once said: “Chandler is an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes“. That’s some mighty comparison! The Big Sleep is Chandler’s best-known novel, published in 1939, and it was the first to feature that immortal Sherlockian detective.
Everyone comes to The Big Sleep for Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles, and he was certainly an evocative place writer, but I personally loved his characterisations most of all. I got a lot of smirks out of descriptions like: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money” = brilliant! That said, Chandler was far from perfect when it came to plotting. The Big Sleep is complex, criss-crossing, and full of holes, like a hand-knitted jumper from a kindly arthritic grandma. So, bear with me as I try to explain…
Private investigator Philip Marlowe is having a grand old life, being vaguely sexist and drinking a lot of hard liquor, when he gets a call from wealthy patriarch General Sternwood. Sternwood wants Marlowe to “deal with” a recent blackmail attempt on his daughter, Carmen. And Marlowe won’t have to work too hard, because they’ve already fingered the culprit: bookseller Arthur Geiger, whose bookselling operation is actually a front for his illegal pornography trade.
Oh, and there’s the small matter of Sternwood’s son-in-law, husband of his other daughter Vivian: Rusty Regan has disappeared off the face of the earth. Vivian puts the heavies on Marlowe herself, trying to figure out whether he’s on that case, too. But mostly, it’s the blackmailing thing. Sternwood tells Marlowe to deal with that as a priority.
So, off Marlowe trots to investigate this “bookseller” Geiger, starting with a good old-fashioned stakeout at his house. He sees Carmen walk in, but doesn’t follow her, figuring he’ll wait and see what happens… and then he hears gunshots, and screaming. He heads inside and finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged and naked, both sprawled out in front of an empty camera.
First thing’s first: he gets Carmen into a jacket and home safe. But, upon returning, he finds Geiger’s body has disappeared. Uh oh.
The next day, the coppers come around and tell Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ car was driven off a cliff with the chauffeur still inside (but he was whacked around the head before the car hit the water, so at least he didn’t suffer). They also grill Marlowe about whether he’s chasing after Regan. Seriously, every other minute someone’s pestering Marlowe about this missing Regan bloke – I can’t think of a single character that doesn’t ask him about it at some point.
Anyway, still on the blackmailing case, Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s bookstore and sees his porn stash being moved to the home of one Joe Brody. Before he can figure out what to do about that, Vivian hits him up, telling him Carmen is still being blackmailed, but now with nude photos from the night before. She also tells him, just casually, that she likes gambling at a casino belonging to Eddie Mars, whose wife (she suspects) ran off with Regan.
To his credit, Marlowe doesn’t take the bait straight away. He heads back to Geiger’s house first, and finds Carmen trying to break in. They search for the nudes together, with no luck, and she plays dumb about what happened the night before. Then Eddie Mars, the casino owner, coincidentally shows up. He says he’s Geiger’s landlord and he’s looking for him. He and Marlowe have a pissing contest.
Are you lost and confused yet? I hope not, because we’re not even halfway through! With all the crossing and double-crossing, it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what to whom. Plus, I’m not sure I quite buy how often Marlowe “just happened” to witness a murder, or arrive on the scene while the body’s still warm…
Next, Marlowe heads over to Joe Brody’s, where they’re stashing the porn. He works out Brody is in cahoots with Geiger’s clerk, Agnes. He tells them both the jig is up: he knows about the porn, he knows about the blackmail… but before he can finish them, Carmen breaks in and tries to shoot them both. Marlowe gets the gun off her, thank goodness (a strumpet with a temper and a firearm is not a good combination), and he tells her to head out, he’s got this.
Geiger was, in fact, the one initially blackmailing Carmen. The (now dead) chauffeur, Owen Taylor, didn’t like it much, because he had the hots for her. He snuck in and killed Geiger, and took the nudes out of the camera for safekeeping. Brody had also been staking out the house (how did he and Marlowe not run into each other?), and he followed Owen when he left. He knocked the driver out, stole the nudes, then decided to do a little blackmailing of his own.
Then – bam! Geiger’s lover shows up, and shoots Brody dead. He thought Brody was the one who killed Geiger, and wanted to get some revenge. Also, he admits, he was the one who hid Geiger’s body – he wanted to get all of his stuff out of the house before anyone figured out they were more than friends (this was the ’30s, after all).
So, case solved! Yay! All the blackmailers are dead, happy days. But Regan’s disappearance is still troubling Marlowe – probably because everyone around him won’t shut up about it. The cops aren’t that concerned though; they figure he just ran off with Mrs Mars, like Vivian said.
Now, we meet Henry Jones (yes, Chandler is still introducing new characters, and they all have super-generic names – ack!). He offers to sell Marlowe the location of Mrs Mars, but he doesn’t get the chance, because Eddie has him killed. The Big Sleep‘s death toll is now up to four. Luckily, Marlowe manages to squeeze the information out of Agnes instead. He finds Mrs Mars (killing Eddie’s henchman in the process – that’s five!), only for her to tell him that she hasn’t seen Regan in months. Dead end, after all that!
With hat in hand, Marlowe goes to see his client. But Sternwood ups the stakes, offering him $1,000 for Regan’s whereabouts. Marlowe quickly decides that this isn’t the moment to give up. On his way out the door, he returns Carmen’s gun to her, and she asks him to take her down the back paddock and teach her how to shoot. Fair enough, he thinks, but as soon as they get out there she decides to use him as the target.
But Marlowe, being a clever bugger, has loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen immediately falls into a (very convenient) seizure, which saves her from having to explain herself. He carries her up to the house, and he and Vivian finally piece it all together. A while back, Carmen came on to Regan and he rejected her, so she killed him (as she just tried to do with Marlowe). Eddie Mars, who had been an investor in Geiger’s little porno enterprise, had helped Vivian cover it up. He disposed of the body, and invented a cock-and-bull story about his wife running off with the dead guy. Vivian claims she did it all to keep her father from finding out his other daughter was a psychopath, and she promises to get Carmen locked up in a nice cozy mental institution.
So, to celebrate a job well done, Marlowe heads down the pub. He downs a few scotches, muses briefly on death, and tells the bartender he has the hots for Mrs Mars but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. The title, The Big Sleep, is Marlowe’s euphemism for death that he uses in those final pages.
The Big Sleep, like most of Marlowe’s novels, was written by what he called “cannibalising” his short stories. Chandler would take stories he had already published and rework them into a coherent novel. For The Big Sleep, he mashed together his short stories Killer In The Rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936). Although the stories were independent, and shared no characters, they ran along similar lines – an old powerful bloke whose daughter is stressing him out, basically.
As might be expected, all of this cannibalising sometimes produced a plot with a few loose ends. The famously unanswered question in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur, Owen? I mean, logic would suggest that it must have been Brody, but Chandler never confirmed it – in fact, when the question was put to him, he said he had no idea. To him, plot was less important than atmosphere and characterisation (and it shows). An ending that answered every question mattered less to Chandler than interesting characters, so bear that in mind when you pick this one up.
The Big Sleep is quite similar to one of my other recent reads, The Maltese Falcon, in a lot of ways, but I think I preferred Hammett’s style. If you’re a dedicated crime/detective mystery reader, though, The Big Sleep would be a good one for you – you’ll be well practiced at following the twists and turns, and it’s clearly a classic of the genre.
If you’re not sure, you can try before you buy. There have been a bunch of different adaptations into almost every format – most famously a 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart (naturally). I’m not sure I’ll read The Big Sleep again, but I’d be keen to give the movie a go – it reads like it would translate really well into film.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Big Sleep:
- “Lime gimlets. What more do I need to say.” – AH Jones
- “I read a great deal and have read nothing better. Frequently not as well crafted. Correct as to the time period. Yes I’m that old.” – cain paul the less than apostle
- “a classic that doesnt dissapoint. named my cat marlowe.” – ssfn
- “Book showed up good. Had pages and ever thing.” – Ken Johnson
- “chandler like so many authors puts too many non essentials in his plots make them a little too much boring” – Astan papemazon Customer
- “Descriptive wording. Love that.” – Lynne B.
- “A good reader. Turnpager.” – Maycoon
December 11, 2019 at 8:01 PM
I loved this, but I have to say I love the classic film even more. Detective fiction of this era is less shocking and easy to live with I guess and in the film the actors seemed more stylish. But that may well be nostalgia talking.
December 13, 2019 at 10:36 AM
Hopefully I’ll get a chance to check it out over the holidays – I’ve heard it’s great!
March 14, 2023 at 2:52 PM
The film is mediocre and the plot falls apart completely. The novel is far superior as is with most novels.