Title: The Big Sleep
Author: Raymond Chandler
Type of Text: Novel
Main Characters: LA private detective, Philip Marlowe. His rich elderly client, General Sternwood; the general’s two young daughters, the three-times married Mrs Vivian Regan (whose latest husband, Rusty Regan, walked out on her) and the wild Miss Carmen Sternwood; their butler Norris, and their chauffeur, Owen Taylor, apparently in love with Carmen. Arthur G Geiger, a blackmailer and pornographer; Joe Brody, another blackmailer. Eddie Mars, who runs a local gambling and protection racket. Bernie Ohls, chief investigator at the DA’s office.
Narrative Style: Marlowe as first-person narrator has a very distinct (and probably genre-defining) voice, cynical and sarcastic, which pays a lot of attention to detail and description. The narrative is presented in the past tense, chronologically ordered and in chapters, without any real use of flashback or explicit foreshadowing, in order to maintain the mystery and suspense.
Themes & Imagery: Easy, almost careless use of guns. Competing factions of law enforcement. Keeping your cards close to your chest; bluff and hunches. Secret vices behind closed doors – the constant shadow of prohibition; equivalence of vice / crime / sin (if you’ll commit one type of crime, you’ll commit others); low-key homophobia; pornography. Dirty business and racketeering. Manic laughter and inane giggles. Questionable values and loyalties. Faded wealth, and wealth divide; money doesn’t buy happiness, but most people will still do anything to get it.
Synopsis: LA private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by the rich old General Sternwood to stop the man trying to blackmail his wild daughters. Turns out the blackmailer, A G Geiger, is primarily a pornographer, but by the time Marlowe tracks him down, he’s already dead – and whoever shot him has his explicit photographs of Carmen Sternwood. As Marlowe tries to track down the photographs, more bodies start turning up; his job would be a lot easier if the Sternwood daughters didn’t keep sticking their noses in. Even after Marlowe brings the blackmail case to an acceptable resolution, there’s still the persistent question, which everybody assumed Marlowe is trying to answer and to which he eventually turns his attention: what happened to Sternwood’s son-in-law, the recently-disappeared Rusty Regan?
Personal Response: I’m going to claim that it’s a testament to Chandler’s skill as a writer, rather than evidence of my flaws as a reader, that, although I had read this novel before, the unfolding of the plot maintained its tendency to take me by surprise. Chandler lays the sort of traps which I don’t see until after I’ve fallen into them – at which point I notice and admire the hints which ought to have given away their presence. The style is noticeable for its proliferation of detail and for Marlowe’s frequent witticisms: he never seems to lose his cool, and so, unlike in some crime novels, there never seemed to me any risk that Marlowe would find himself in real danger; as a result, I found it quite a cheerful and relaxing easy read, despite the potentially dark subject matter and undertones.
Favourite Part: The tussle between Marlowe and Agnes at Joe Brody’s place.
My Top Five Lines & Passages:
On first meeting Miss Carmen Sternwood:
“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.
“I didn’t mean to be.”
Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.
While trying to convince Geiger’s assistant that he’s a pornography salesman:
I took my dark glasses off and tapped them delicately on the inside if my left wrist. If you can weigh a hundred and ninety pounds and look like a fairy, I was doing my best.
When Brody asks Agnes to back up his story:
The blonde opened her eyes and looked at him with vague but uncomplimentary speculation. “A half-smart guy,” she said with a tired sniff. “That’s all I ever draw. Never once a guy that’s smart all the way around the course. Never once.”
I grinned at her. “Did I hurt your head much?”
“You and every other man I ever met.”
Vivian shows Marlowe that the man who escorted her to the casino is too drunk to drive her home:
We went over to a big Cadillac and the man in the smock pulled the rear door open. On the wide back seat, loosely arranged, covered to the chin with a plaid robe, a man lay snoring with his mouth open. He seemed to be a big blonde man who would hold a lot of liquor.
“Meet Mr Larry Cobb,” Vivian said. “Mister Cobb – Mister Marlowe.”
“Mr Cobb was my escort,” she said. “Such a nice escort, Mr Cobb. So attentive. You should see him sober. I should see him sober. Somebody should see him sober. I mean, just for the record. So it could become a part of history, that brief flashing moment, soon buried in time, but never forgotten – when Larry Cobb was sober.”
Captain Gregory of Missing Persons defends himself against the faint accusation that he’s in Eddie’s pocket:
“I’m a copper,” he said. “Just a plain ordinary copper. Reasonably honest. As honest as you could expect a man to be in a world where it’s out of style. That’s mainly why I asked you to come in this morning. I’d like you to believe that. Being a copper I like to see the law win. I’d like to see the flashy well-dressed mugs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That’s what I’d like. You and me both lived too long to think I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green, beautiful USA. We just don’t run our country that way.”