Novels for Students

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Raymond Chandler


Raymond Chandler began writing his first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1938, and it was published in 1939. Critics consider it the best of the seven that he wrote. Before publishing the novel, Chandler wrote stories for pulp fiction magazines. He uses the plot and details from three of these stories, "Killer in the Rain," "The Curtain," and "Finger Man" in The Big Sleep. Alfred A. Knopf, Chandler's American publisher, promoted the book by linking Chandler with Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, two popular novelists of detective fiction also published by Knopf. Chandler's writing, however, was more hard-boiled than Cain or Hammett's. The narrator of the novel, private investigator Philip Marlowe, is a world-weary tough guy who nevertheless lives by a chivalric code of honor and retains a sense of professional pride in his work. He negotiates the decadent world of crime-ridden Los Angeles, trying to sort out the details of an increasingly complex scheme to blackmail the Sternwoods, a wealthy family that made its money in oil. The story is as much a character study of a certain male American mindset as it is a "whodunnit" crime story. More than simply a mystery novel, The Big Sleep has become a classic of American literature, with Chandler praised for his deft handling of plot, as well as his terse style and acerbic wit. Avon Books brought out the novel in paperback in 1943. In 1946, a film adaptation of The Big Sleep was released, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, two of the biggest movie stars of the day.

Author Biography

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born July 23, 1888, in Chicago, Illinois, to Maurice Benjamin Chandler, a civil engineer, and Florence Thornton Chandler, a British immigrant. Chandlers' parents divorced when he was seven years old, he and his mother moved to London, England, to live with her family.

Chandler was educated at Dulwich College preparatory school, which taught students the value of public service and gentlemanly behavior as much as it did academic subjects such as mathematics and literature. After graduating from Dulwich, Chandler studied French in Paris, and spent time as a tutor in Germany before returning to England, where he worked as a civil servant for a brief period before growing disgusted with bureaucracy. In 1912, after trying and failing to make a living as a writer, Chandler moved back to the United States, where he worked at a variety of odd jobs until joining the Canadian army in 1917. Chandler saw limited time at the Western front in France during World War I and was training to be an air force pilot when the war ended. In 1924, Chandler married Pearl Cecily Eugenia Hurlburt, a woman twice-divorced and eighteen years his senior; the marriage lasted thirty years until her death in 1954. By the time of the marriage, Chandler had been employed for two years by Dabney Oil Syndicate in Los Angeles, rising through the ranks to become a vice president. His affairs with office workers and his heavy drinking, however, led to his dismissal in 1932.

Chandler began writing stories for the pulp fiction market, publishing his work in outlets such as Black Mask and Detective Fiction Weekly, learning the trade as he went along. After years of what amounted to paid apprentice work writing for the pulps, Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep in 1939. It was a critical and popular success. Like Hammett, whose writing Chandler studied, Chandler set his stories in cities, and used the language of the streets. His meticulous attention to physical detail, complex plotting, and especially, his development of one of the greatest twentieth-century characters in American literature, private investigator Philip Marlowe, helped make Chandler one of the most popular mystery writers of his day. In Marlowe, Chandler created someone who, though exhausted and battered by the world's brutality and corruption, nonetheless lived by a code of honor and took pride in his work.

In addition to his short stories and seven novels, which include Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Lady in the Lake (1943), Chandler wrote screenplays for Hollywood including Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), for which he received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, and The Lady in the Lake (1947). After a bout of pneumonia following a period of heavy drinking, Chandler died on March 26, 1959. He was, at the time, working on a new novel called Poodle Springs. The novel was later finished by Robert B. Parker and published in 1989.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–5

The Big Sleep opens with private investigator Philip Marlowe visiting General Sternwood's mansion. Marlowe muses on the house's art and the fact that the furniture looks as if no one uses it. He first meets Carmen Sternwood, a flirt who, at twenty years old, is the younger of the General's two daughters. Then he meets the General, who receives him in his hothouse, a jungle-like setting in which the old man grows tropical orchids. The General tells Marlowe he is being blackmailed by someone named Arthur Gwynn Geiger, who wants the General to pay for Carmen's alleged gambling debts. Marlowe agrees to visit Geiger and put an end to the General's troubles. On his way out of the house, Vivian Regan, the older of the General's daughters, meets with Marlowe and tries to find out what the detective and her father spoke about, suspecting that it was about her husband, Rusty Regan, who left her about a month previously.

Pretending to be shopping for a rare book, Marlowe visits Geiger's antique bookstore, but Geiger is not in. While Marlowe waits for Geiger, a man comes in and disappears into a back room and then reappears with a book that he pays for and then leaves. Marlowe follows him a few blocks until the man hides the book in a tree. Marlowe, however, finds the book. Attempting to find Geiger, Marlowe visits another bookstore in the neighborhood and is given a description of Geiger by a woman who works there. He surmises through his discussion with this woman that Geiger's shop is a front for something. He discovers what that something is when he opens the book he had retrieved from the tree and sees that it contains pornographic photographs.

Chapters 6–10

Marlowe follows Geiger home and sees Carmen Sternwood's car parked in front of Geiger's home. He hears shots, and then breaks in to find Geiger dead on the floor and Carmen drugged and naked in front of a camera, the plateholder (negative) of which is missing. While rummaging through the house for clues, he finds a notebook with entries written in code. Marlowe takes Carmen home. The next morning, Bernie Ohls, the District Attorney's chief investigator, calls Marlowe and the two of them drive to the Lido fish pier where a man had driven into the ocean. The dead man is Owen Taylor, the Sternwoods' chauffeur, who once proposed to Carmen. Investigators cannot decide if the death was a homicide or a suicide. Marlowe returns to the city and visits Geiger's store once more, only to see men in the back room packing up books. He follows one of the men to Geiger's house, where the same man is packing up yet more books, and then to the apartment of Joe Brody.

Media Adaptations

  • Warner Brothers released the film adaptation of Chandler's novel in 1946. The movie, directed by Howard Hawks, stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and is considered a classic of film noir. It is available in most libraries and video stores. Chandler's novel was adapted once more in 1978 in a film directed by Michael Winner and starring Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles.

Chapters 11–16

Vivian Regan visits Marlowe and shows him a nude photograph of her sister taken at Geiger's house, claiming that someone is blackmailing her for $5,000 and will give the photo to the "scandal sheets" unless she pays up. She says that she can borrow the money from Eddie Mars, an owner of a gambling parlor that she frequents. Ohls tells Marlowe that all of the Sternwoods have alibis for last night. Hunting for more clues, Marlowe returns to Geiger's house, only to find Carmen Sternwood, who has gone there to retrieve the nude photographs taken of her. While Marlowe and Carmen are in the house, Eddie Mars arrives, telling Marlowe that Geiger is his tenant and threatening the private investigator with a gun. Marlowe heads to Joe Brody's apartment, and after a standoff that includes Agnes Lozelle, the blonde woman who works at Geiger's store and who is Brody's girlfriend, Marlowe learns that Brody was also at Geiger's the night Geiger was killed. Brody claims he saw Taylor running out of the house and he followed him, hit him on the head, and took the photographic plateholder Taylor himself had taken from Geiger's. Marlowe finally convinces him to give up the photographs and plateholder. Just then, Carmen knocks at the door, holding a gun to Brody and demanding the photographs. After a tussle, Brody gives the photos to Marlowe, and Carmen leaves. Shortly after she leaves, Carol Lundgren, the young man Marlowe had seen at Geiger's store, knocks on the door and shoots Brody dead when he answers. Marlowe chases him down and takes him back to Geiger's.

Chapters 17–19

Marlowe finds Geiger's body in a bed in Lundgren's room and learns that Lundgren had been living with Geiger. Marlowe, Ohls, and Lundgren visit Taggart Wilde, the District Attorney, who is meeting with Captain Cronjager when they arrive. The two tell the story of the last few days but leave out a few details, specifically Carmen Sternwood's visit to Brody and Marlowe's run-in with Eddie Mars. The story goes as follows: Owen Taylor, who had once proposed to Carmen Sternwood, killed Geiger in a fit of rage when he found out Geiger was taking nude photographs of her. Brody tried to capitalize on the death by taking over Geiger's pornography business. Lundgren came home and moved Geiger's body to the back room, so that he would have time to move his things out of the house before the police found out about Geiger's murder. Lundgren sees Brody moving Geiger's pornographic books, and so believes that Brody killed Geiger. Lundgren kills Brody. Cronjager is upset because he is just learning about all of this the day after it happened. The next day, the newspapers report the Brody and Geiger murders solved, with Brody accused of killing Geiger over a shady business deal involving a wire service and Lundgren accused of killing Brody. The Sternwoods, Mars, Marlowe, and Ohls were not mentioned, nor did the papers connect the Taylor death to any of the events. Mars calls Marlowe to thank him for keeping his name out of his report.

Chapters 20–25

In these chapters, Marlowe hunts for Rusty Regan, first visiting Captain Al Gregory of the Missing Persons Bureau, and then Eddie Mars's casino. Mars claims to know nothing. Marlowe "apparently" rescues Vivian Regan from a mugging outside the casino, and then takes her home. She attempts to seduce Marlowe, but he fends off her advances, asking her what information Mars has on her that she will not share with him. She says nothing. When Marlowe arrives home, he discovers Carmen in his bed and undressed. Again, Marlowe declines an invitation for sex and kicks Carmen out. The next day, Harry Jones, a two-bit grifter who had been tailing Marlowe, tells him that Eddie Mars had Regan killed and that Mona Grant, Eddie's estranged wife, is hiding out outside of town.

Chapters 26–32

Marlowe visits Puss Walgreen's insurance offices and overhears Jones talking to Lash Canino. He listens as Jones tells Canino where Lozelle is hiding out and then listens as Canino poisons Jones by pouring him a cyanide-laced drink. Marlowe calls Lozelle and offers her two hundred dollars for information about Mona Grant's whereabouts. After paying her and receiving the information, Marlowe heads out of town, where he runs into Canino and Art Huck, who runs an auto repair garage. The two beat up Marlowe and handcuff him. He wakes up to see Grant in a silver wig guarding him. After Marlowe tells her that Mars is a killer, she lets him escape. Marlowe waits outside for Canino to return and then, with Grant creating a diversion, shoots Canino dead. The next day Marlowe visits General Sternwood and explains to him why he kept looking for Regan even after the General had told him the case was closed. The General first feigns anger and then offers Marlowe a thousand dollars to find Regan. On his way out of the house, Marlowe sees Carmen and she asks him to teach her how to shoot a gun. She takes Marlowe down an old deserted road and, during target practice, shoots at him, but does not kill him because he had loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen has an epileptic seizure and Marlowe takes her home. He tells Vivian what happened and finally discovers the truth from her: Carmen had killed Regan because he refused her advances. With Eddie Mars's help, they disposed of the body in an old oil well. Marlowe makes Vivian promise to take Carmen away and get professional help for her, threatening to report the details of Regan's murder if she does not. She agrees and Marlowe leaves, musing on death and how nothing matters when one is doing "the big sleep."


Joe Brody

Joe Brody is a small-time hood who was once involved with Carmen Sternwood; her father paid him to stop seeing his daughter. Brody's new girl-friend is Agnes, Geiger's employee. Brody has successfully blackmailed the General once and tries to do it again with nude photos of Carmen, which he took off Taylor after following Taylor from Geiger's home. Lundgren kills Brody because he believed that Brody had killed his lover, Geiger.

Lash Canino

Lash Canino is a cold and ruthless hit man who wears brown clothes and a brown hat and drives a brown car. He works for Mars as a bodyguard and all purpose thug. Canino helps to dispose of Rusty Regan's body after Carmen Sternwood kills him. He also poisons Jones after extracting information from him about Agnes's location. Marlowe kills Canino in a shoot-out.

Larry Cobb

Larry Cobb is a drunk and Vivian Regan's escort at the Cypress Club.

Captain Cronjager

Captain Cronjager, "a hatchet-faced man," is at Wilde's home when Marlowe and Ohls chronicle the events leading up to and including Geiger and Brody's murders. He is angry with Marlowe for not reporting the murders earlier and the two of them argue.

Arthur Gwynn Geiger

Arthur Gwynn Geiger is a pornographer who owns a rare book store on Hollywood Boulevard and rents a house from Mars. …