The Big Sleep

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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. A middle-aged "fattish" man with a Charlie Chan moustache, Geiger is shot dead while taking photographs of a nude Carmen Sternwood. His lover is Lundgren, who also lives in the house.

Mona Grant

Mona Grant is a former lounge singer and Mars's estranged wife. She is also a former girl-friend of Rusty Regan. She is hiding outside of town and guarded by Canino, so that the police will think that she ran away with Regan. Initially, she is naive and gullible, refusing to believe Marlowe when he tells her that Mars kills people, but she lets Marlowe escape while she is guarding him, and then helps him kill Canino by creating a diversion.

Captain Al Gregory

Al Gregory is head of the Missing Persons Bureau. Marlowe describes him as "a burly man with tired eyes." He knows more than he lets on, initially presenting himself as a "hack," but later telling Marlowe that he is an honest man in a dishonest city. Gregory shows Marlowe a photograph of Regan and provides him with information about his history.

Art Huck

Art Huck, a gaunt man in overalls, owns a house and an auto repair shop outside of the city. He and Canino are protecting Grant, who is hiding out at Huck's place. Huck fixes Marlowe's flats and then helps Canino capture him.

Harry Jones

Harry Jones is a small-time criminal and friend of Brody and Rusty Regan's. He tells Marlowe that Mars had Regan killed. He is a small man with bright eyes. He sums up his philosophy of life when he tells Marlowe, "I'm a grifter. We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel." He is poisoned by Canino, after Jones tells the killer where Agnes is hiding.

Agnes Lozelle

Agnes Lozelle is Joe Brody's ash-blonde girl-friend who works in Geiger's store. She is surly and aloof when Marlowe visits the store, arousing his suspicions. She bemoans her luck at always attracting "half-smart" men. After Brody is killed, she connects with Jones, who tries to protect her from Canino. Marlowe gives her two hundred dollars for information about Mona Grant.

Carol Lundgren

Carol Lundgren worked for Geiger, was his lover, and lived with him. He is a good-looking, thin, blonde young man who Marlowe refers to as a "fag" and a "pansy." After Lundgren shoots Brody, Marlowe chases him down and brings him back to Geiger's house. He is arrested and charged with Brody's murder.

Philip Marlowe

Philip Marlowe, the novel's narrator, is a single, thirty-three year old private investigator. Marlowe had formerly worked for Wilde, the District Attorney, but was fired for insubordination. He is a handsome, charming, cynical, street-smart character who loves his work but shows contempt for women. When he is not smoking or drinking, he is nursing a hangover and working the Sternwood case. Marlowe has a high degree of professional pride and a general disdain for the rich. He puts work before romance and is loyal to his employer, General Sternwood, declining the amorous advances of both of Sternwood's daughters. Arrogant, witty, self-deprecating, and world-weary, Marlowe served and continues to serve as the inspiration for the characters of numerous private investigators in both fiction and film.

Eddie Mars

Eddie Mars is the middle-aged proprietor of the Cypress Club, a gambling house on the beach that Vivian Regan frequents. He also rents a house to Geiger. Impeccably dressed in expensive gray suits, Mars has a cool demeanor and rarely involves himself directly in crime, choosing instead to hire others such as Canino to do his dirty work. His wife, Grant, was once Rusty Regan's lover. Mars has connections in the police department and it is likely that he will not be charged with any crimes.


Mathilda is Vivian Regan's maid. Marlowe describes her as "a middle-aged woman with a long gentle face."

Vincent Norris

Vincent Norris is General Sternwood's butler. He is about sixty years old, with silver hair, an agile manner, and a quick wit. He holds a considerable degree of power in the Sternwood household, writing checks for the General and deciding what information the General should and should not have.

Bernie Ohls

Bernie Ohls is the chief investigator for Wilde and a friend of Marlowe's who had recommended Marlowe to General Sternwood. Ohls is tough, having killed nine men during his career. But he also takes pride in his work and has a degree of integrity. He takes Marlowe to see Owen Taylor's body and accompanies him to Wilde's to report the details of Brody and Geiger's murder and subsequently to report Jones's and Canino's deaths.

Terence Regan

Terence "Rusty" Regan is an Irish immigrant, former bootlegger, and late husband of Vivian Regan. Regan was a good friend of General Sternwood, who would listen to his stories of the time he spent in the Irish Republican Army. He was in love with Grant, Mars's wife, and becomes the object of Marlowe's investigation in the second half of the novel, after General Sternwood hires Marlowe to find him. Regan is killed by Carmen Sternwood after he spurns her advances.

Vivian Regan

The oldest Sternwood daughter, Vivian is in her 20s and almost as hard-boiled as Marlowe, spending most of her time at the roulette table at the Cypress Club gambling or drinking and attempting to seduce men like Marlowe, who describes her as "tall and rangy and strong-looking." Her escort is Larry Cobb, a slobbering drunk for whom she has no affection but considered marrying at one point. She has been married three times, most recently to Rusty Regan. She helps to cover up the truth of Regan's death by deceiving Marlowe to protect her sister. She finally tells Marlowe the details of his death at the end of the novel.

Carmen Sternwood

Carmen Sternwood is the younger of the two Sternwood sisters. She is twenty years old, beautiful, relentlessly flirtatious, spoiled, and epileptic. She is also at the center of the blackmailing scheme that includes Geiger and Brody. She spends most of the novel sucking on her thumb or playing with her hair, or telling Marlowe that he is cute. After being sexually rejected by Marlowe a number of times, she attempts to shoot him while Marlowe is showing her how to use a gun. Her sister tells Marlowe that Carmen had killed Regan for the same reason. Marlowe makes Vivian promise to seek professional help for her sister as a condition for him to remain silent about the details of Regan's death.

General Gus Sternwood

General Sternwood is the elderly millionaire father of Carmen and Vivian, who initially hires Marlowe to "take care" of someone who is attempting to blackmail him. He fell off a horse when he was fifty-eight years old and is paralyzed from the waist down. Sternwood now lives through others, spending most of his time in a wheelchair in his hothouse growing orchids. He loved Rusty Regan because Regan told him stories and kept him company, and he hires Marlowe to find him. Norris and the daughters keep the truth of Regan's death from him.

Owen Taylor

Taylor was "a slim dark-haired kid" from Dubuque, Iowa who worked as a chauffeur for the Sternwoods. His body is found in a car off the Lido pier and his death is ruled a suicide. Marlowe speculates that Taylor killed Geiger when he found out he was taking nude photographs of Carmen Sternwood, to whom Taylor had once proposed.

Taggart Wilde

Taggart Wilde is the District Attorney and Marlowe's former boss. He comes from an old Los Angeles family and his political connections are many and deep. His father was a friend of General Sternwood's. Marlowe describes him as "a middle-aged plump man with clear blue eyes that managed to have a friendly expression without really having any expression at all." He determines what will be reported in the newspapers regarding Brody and Geiger's killings and helps keep the Sternwood name out of the papers.


Privilege and Entitlement

Although Marlowe works for General Sternwood, a millionaire, his loyalty to the man is not based on Sternwood's wealth but on his age, infirmity, and honesty. Throughout the novel, Marlowe treats people as they treat him, rather than as they expect to be treated by virtue of their class standing or social position. This is demonstrated in the way he responds to the Sternwood sisters, both of whom are privileged and behave as if they are entitled to special treatment. Vivian Regan is shocked by Marlowe's "rude manners" during their first encounter, and Carmen Sternwood is so disturbed by Marlowe's sexual rejection of her that she attempts to kill him. Marlowe is also discourteous to Captain Cronjager during his visit to Wilde's office, refusing to defer to Cronjager's position as police captain when discussing the Geiger and Brody killings. Marlowe's behavior in this instance has as much to do with his own sense of entitlement regarding what he can and cannot do in his job as a private investigator as it does with Cronjager's arrogance.

Meaning of Life

In the early twentieth century, the sheer horror and scale of atrocities during the first World War caused many people to lose faith in God and organized religion. Combined with the increasing acceptance of scientific theories such as evolution, many no longer believed in a higher benevolent intelligence to provide meaning to their lives, and so, struggled to find purpose. Some, like the Sternwood sisters, spent their time pursuing pleasure gambling, drinking, and engaging in promiscuous sex. Others, like Marlowe, found meaning in their work and in adherence to a code of honor. Still others, such as General Sternwood, who had lost control of much of his body, survived by living through people like Marlowe and Rusty Regan. Death, however, hovers just above the heads of all the characters, as Marlowe reminds readers at the end of the novel: "What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? … You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell."

Topics for Further Study

  • Divide the class into four groups and assign each group eight chapters from the novel. Each group should compile a list of terms from their respective chapters that Marlowe and other characters use that are peculiar to the detective-story genre. Such terms might include words like "gat" (gun) or "peeper" (private investigator). Compile all of the terms into a dictionary for the class.
  • Watch the 1946 film adaptation of Chandler's novel and list the differences between the film and the novel. Discuss possible reasons for those differences as a class.
  • Rewrite the last chapter in the book, resolving the Rusty Regan mystery in a different way. Exchange your chapter with a classmate and discuss in pairs.
  • While screenwriters were working on adapting Chandler's novel to film, they sent him a note asking how Owen Taylor really died. Chandler responded, saying he did not know. On the board, brainstorm possible theories of Taylor's death and vote as a class on the best theory.
  • In pairs, make a list of your favorite similes in the novel and then put them on the board and as a class discuss what makes them effective.

Law and Order

Laws are meant to ensure a safe environment for citizens, to maintain social order, and to instill a sense of justice in the populace. The rampant corruption and disregard for the law in Chandler's novel demonstrates that the social fabric has begun to fray in 1930s Los Angeles. Police protect pornographers and gamblers, women destroy men for sport, the wealthy buy their way out of trouble, and appearances inevitably belie reality. Characters routinely manipulate each other for personal gain. The spirit of Chandler's novel can be summed up by small-time criminal Harry Jones, who says to Marlowe, "We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel."



Dialogue, the conversation between two or more characters, is a primary tool writers use for characterization and to drive plots. Writers use dialogue to reveal the desires, motivations, and character of the players in their stories, helping to create an idea and an image of them in readers' minds. Chandler is known as a master of vernacular dialogue. His characters talk the way that 1930s thugs, cops, and private investigators talk on the job, in language studded with slang such as "loogan" (a man with a gun), "peeper" (private investigator), and "centuries" (hundred dollar bills). His characters, especially Marlowe, are also known for their use of biting similes to describe someone or thing. Similes are comparisons that employ "as" or "like." For example, in describing the way Brody's cigarette dangles from his mouth, Marlowe states: "His cigarette was jiggling like a doll on a coiled spring." This is also an example of Marlowe's wit, which he uses to ward off sentimentality and to demonstrate his self-awareness.


The bulk of Chandler's novel is objective description. Marlowe spends a long time describing the physical settings of individual scenes, thus making a kind of character out of place. This strategy creates vivid images in readers' minds, helps to develop characterization, and prepares readers for the ensuing action. Marlowe's elaborate description of Geiger's house as a virtual palace of tackiness, for example, emphasizes Geiger's sordid behavior as a pornographer and (to Marlowe) as a homosexual. Chandler was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway's use of description in his novels of the 1920s.


Plot refers to the arrangement of events in a story. In Chandler's novel, details of the events come fast. However, the interpretation of the events change as Marlowe receives new information, causing readers to rethink what they believe as well. For example, at first Ohls and Marlowe believe that Taylor had committed suicide. However, when they discover a bruise on his forehead, they believe he was hit by a blackjack and murdered. Later however, Brody claims to have hit Taylor but not to have killed him with the blow. The truth of what actually happened to Taylor is never revealed. Unlike conventional mystery novels where all loose ends are tied up, The Big Sleep leaves many questions unanswered and plot details unresolved.

Historical Context


While Chandler was penning his novel in the late 1930s, the United States was attempting to recover from the depression that had economically devastated the country since 1929. Marlowe, who charged millionaire General Sternwood twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses, was not only working, he was making well over the average national salary, which stood at $1,368. Unemployment during the 1930s reached a high of 25%. To help alleviate the economic suffering of many Americans, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act in 1935, ensuring the elderly an income, and ensuring workers the right to unionize, respectively.

Farmers were especially hard hit during the 1930s, and many from Midwestern "Dust Bowl" states such as Oklahoma and Missouri (so named because of the drought and dust storms that hit that area in the 1930s) moved to California hoping for work and a better life. On the outskirts of Marlowe's Los Angeles and in the fertile valleys of the state, migrant workers picked lemons, potatoes, cotton, peas, and other crops, going wherever there was work. The Works Progress Administration, a huge government job program, was also created in 1935. Over its seven-year life span the WPA spent eleven billion dollars employing more than eight million people for 250,000 projects that involved rebuilding the country's roads, bridges, and public buildings. The WPA also provided work for artists, writers, and musicians, as the federal government broadly sponsored the arts for the first time.

Sternwood, who made his millions in oil, would have been interested in the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935. The Act created a new federal agency, the Federal Power Commission, which regulated electricity prices, while the Federal Trade Commission did the same for natural gas prices. Many business people fought against components of Roosevelt's New Deal, claiming that they hindered job creation and development of markets, but Roosevelt remained resolute.

The literature of the 1930s explored issues of integrity and honor. Ernest Hemingway's novels, To Have and Have Not (1937) and For Whom the BellTolls (1939), for example, both featured characters who pitted themselves against larger forces such as corporations and fascism. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939) chronicled the struggles of the Joad family, tenant farmers crippled by the depression and the effects of corporate capitalism. Hollywood, on the other hand, where Chandler would make his mark during the 1940s writing screenplays, offered less weighty fare, providing escapist entertainment for the masses. Films popular during this time include Topper (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), and Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Film noir, elements of which Chandler helped to define in his novels and screenplays, was just beginning to take shape in movies such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), featuring Humphrey Bogart playing Hammett's Sam Spade, and This Gun for Hire (1942). The 1940s, of course, was noir's heyday, with Chandler writing the screenplays for classics such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), and seeing his novels Farewell My Lovely, The Big Sleep, and The Lady in the Lake adapted for the big screen.

Critical Overview

Knopf published The Big Sleep in America in 1939 and Hamish Hamilton published the first English edition the same year. The novel received brief but favorable reviews in publications in both countries, with reviewers likening Chandler's work to that of Dashiell Hammett's, the foremost writer of detective novels in the 1920s and 1930s. The first American printing of 5,000 copies sold out quickly, and a second printing was ordered immediately in both the United States and England. Chandler's publishers were so pleased with his success they offered him a 20 percent royalty for the first 5,000 copies of his next novel, and 25 percent on any copies sold beyond that.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s: The economy of the United States continues to slump after a massive downturn in the stock market, which began in 1929 and led to the Great Depression.
    Today: After a massive boom, the economy of the United States slumps after a massive downturn in the stock market, which began in 2000.
  • 1930s: To combat widespread crime in the United States various federal government agencies within the Department of Justice are consolidated to form the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
    Today: After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush forms the Office of Homeland Security to strengthen protection against terrorist threats and attacks in the United States.
  • 1930s: Although gambling is illegal, many gambling houses exist, and often have police protection.
    Today: State lotteries are commonplace and many states have legal gambling casinos, many of them operating on Native-American reservations.

After Chandler's death, his reputation as a serious writer grew, with many critics claiming The Big Sleep as his best novel. In his biography, The Life of Raymond Chandler, Frank MacShane argues that although the novel was in reality a stitching together and elaboration of three short stories, the completed product was more than the sum of its parts. MacShane writes, "It is as if the creation of the original images required the sort of emotional energy that makes a poet remember his lines years after he first wrote them down." Other critics consider Chandler's use of Marlowe as the first-person narrator the key ingredient in the novel's success. Russell Davies, for example, in his essay, "Omnes Me Impune Lacessunt," claims Marlowe's self-mockery and "the balance of ironies" in the novel "is really the secret of Chandler's success."

Critic Clive James agrees, noting, "In The Big Sleep and all the novels that followed, the secret of plausibility lies in the style, and the secret of the style lies in Marlowe's personality." Jerry Speir also focuses on Marlowe in discussing the novel. However, instead of treating Marlowe as a knight-errant as have many other critics, Speir argues, "The Big Sleep might be read as a failure of romance." Daniel Linder draws attention to the linguistic irony in the novel in his essay for The Explicator, arguing that Carmen Sternwood's repeated use of the words "cute" and "giggle" have an "echoic" effect on readers that demands interpretation.


Chris Semansky

Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition and writes on literature and culture for several publications. In this essay, Semansky considers the appeal of Marlowe in Chandler's novel.

At the heart of Chandler's first novel and at the heart of all of his novels is Phillip Marlowe, a man of contradictions, who has served as a kind of prototype for private investigators in films and novels over the last sixty years. Rather than alienating readers with his homophobia, his machismo, and his seeming disdain for women, Marlowe has helped Chandler attract a large readership, as he also embodies professional and personal integrity, speaking his mind without worrying about being politically correct or offending the powers that be.

Marlowe, however, is also a cynic, who distrusts others and their motivations, and in general experiences the world of appearances as masking a darker, corrupt reality. This is readily apparent in his description of himself to General Sternwood during their initial meeting. Marlowe tells him: "I'm thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there's any demand for it.… I'm unmarried because I don't like po licemen's wives." Marlowe's comment about speaking English underscores his own contempt for pretentious talk and formal education in general. He learns what he knows from the streets and from his job, and has honed his powers of observation through hard work. His comment about "policemen's wives" also shows his disregard for convention, as he stereotypes the kind of women that policemen marry. It is also a jab at police, who are at times Marlowe's adversaries.

Historically, cynicism emerged in ancient Greece and was popularized by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, and Diogenes. Cynics were disgusted by ostentation, wealth, and the behavior of the leisure class. Cynics today retain those qualities, but also find fault with almost all institutions and individuals, believing that the former are corrupt and the latter selfish. This kind of attitude was easy enough to develop for someone like Marlowe who fought crime in the 1930s, when police corruption in the United States ran rampant and when those who displayed wealth were generally scorned by the masses, which were still suffering under the long shadow of the Great Depression. Marlowe's cynicism, however, was tempered by idealism and a belief that doing his job well and with integrity gave value and meaning to his life. In a revealing speech mid-way through the novel, Marlowe tells Wilde, the District Attorney, that he is willing to risk alienating half of the Los Angeles police force to be true to his values:

I'm on a case. I'm selling what I have to sell to make a living. What little guts and intelligence the Lord gave me and a willingness to get pushed around in order to protect a client. It's against my principles to tell as much as I've told tonight, without consulting the General. As for the cover-up… they come a dime a dozen in any big city. Cops get very large and emphatic when an outsider tries to hide anything, but they do the same things themselves every other day, to oblige their friends or anybody with a little pull.… I'd do the same thing again, if I had to.

It is this sense of loyalty that makes Marlowe an attractive character, and the quality that makes him vulnerable. Without it, his wisecracks and put downs would ring hollow, come off as mere vaudeville. Marlowe's loyalty to the General, though, does not come at the expense of his obligation to obey the law, for the law itself was little more than groups of self-interested parties battling for turf among Los Angeles's criminal elements. Captain Gregory, head of the Missing Persons Bureau, sums up the state of the law when he talks to Marlowe the day after the private investigator kills Canino:

Being a copper I'd like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed muggs 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. 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 and beautiful U.S.A. We just don't run our country that way.

Gregory's comment is a dig at the idea that truth and justice for all exists in the United States. The cynicism of cops and of politicians such as Wilde makes Marlowe's cynicism easier to take, for on him it serves as a weapon with which to fight the deception he encounters every day in his job. Blind allegiance to the law for Marlowe would make him complicitous in the web of deceit and lies. Being true to a professional code of conduct sustains him through the ever-changing landscape of right and wrong that marks the world of the private investigator. Chandler's description of Marlowe's character in his well-known essay, "The Simple Art of Murder" puts it thusly: "He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge."

He will also take no woman's "insolence." Though he exhibits the sex appeal of a man's man with his tough talk and rough manners, Marlowe is no easy mark for a woman intent on seducing him. He first rejects Vivian Regan when she offers herself to him after he saves her from a mugger outside the Cypress Club, attempting to use her desire for him as an opportunity to extract information from her. He then refuses Carmen Sternwood's offer of sex, literally throwing her out of his bedroom, after telling her, "It's a question of professional pride…. I'm working for your father. He's a sick man, very frail, very helpless. He sort of trusts me not to pull any stunts." The morning after this incident, Marlowe wakes up groggy and remarks, "You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick." Many critics have noted Marlowe's adherence to a chivalric code and some of them have labeled him a failed knight, a reading buttressed by the knight imagery in the stained-glass entrance of the Sternwood house and, later, in Marlowe's apartment, while he is puzzling a chess problem. "It wasn't a game for knights," Marlowe says, after making a move about which he thinks twice. More to the point, the world, and Carmen Sternwood, did not deserve knights. Marlowe does not turn in Carmen for killing Rusty Regan because of his loyalty to her father and his desire not to add more pain to his dying days.

This decision has consequences, for in the end, the line between Marlowe's behavior and those he condemns throughout the novel has grown thinner. He takes an odd solace, however, in the idea of Regan's death, depicting it as an escape from the morally corrupt jungle he lives in and the tangle of conflicting desires that marks his life: "Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be." Coupled with the realization that he has been swallowed by the very kind of corruption he has sought to battle, Marlowe's description of General Sternwood on his death bed feels almost like the private investigator's own death wish: "His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep."

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on The Big Sleep, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Jerry Speir

In the following essay, Speir offers a detailed analysis of the plot of The Big Sleep, focusing on Marlowe's emotional transformation and the events that influence it.

"I'm not joking, and if I seem to talk in circles, it just seems that way. It all ties together—everything." The Big Sleep

Philip Marlowe crackles to life on a cloudy October morning in the first paragraph of The Big Sleep (1939). "I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars." Already he exhibits the wry self-mockery which occupies us throughout the novels. The tone is self-assured, even cocky, but it also maintains the ironic detachment of a man conscious of his own pose. By the end of the novel, however, these high spirits will have changed dramatically. And it is precisely in such alterations of Marlowe's mood and in the revelations which precipitate them that Chandler imbeds the meaning of his stories. To appreciate this transformation in The Big Sleep, we must first understand the events which prompt it—the plot, that element about which Chandler claimed to have little concern.

The plot of this novel has drawn considerable, undeserved criticism. One critic, Stephen Pendo, has gone so far as to assert that it is "a confused tangle that demonstrates Chandler's problem of producing a cohesive story line," expressing a fairly common judgment. Part of the problem here may derive from what one is willing to accept as cohesive. And part of the problem, particularly as relates to the public's general misconceptions about this story, no doubt relates to interpretations of the popular 1946 film version of the novel rather than to the book itself. While the film is quite successful within its own limits—and Chandler was very pleased with Bogart's portrayal of Marlowe—it achieves much of its mystery and suspense by omitting many of the subplots and explanations of motivation which are critical concerns for Chandler and which he so carefully details in the novel. A general caution is perhaps in order here concerning the use of any of the movies based on Chandler's works as guides for interpreting the novels or the novelist. Most, in fact, stray further from their sources than does the Bogart-Bacall version of The Big Sleep.

But, to return to the question of cohesiveness, as relates to Chandler's plots, we should bear in mind his remark that he was always "more intrigued by a situation where the mystery is solved more by the exposition and understanding of a single character … than by the slow and sometimes long-winded concatenation of circumstances." It is to character, then, and to the motivations of character that we must look in Chandler if we are to untangle the confusion. And, since the confusion among readers and critics is so widespread, a fairly detailed analysis of the plot seems in order.

The characters who occupy center stage in The Big Sleep fall into two echelons: the members and associates of the wealthy Sternwood family and a loosely associated group of racketeers with whom the Sternwoods have inevitably become involved.

The Sternwood family consists of an aging, dying patriarch known as "the General," and his two daughters, Carmen and Vivian, "still in the dangerous twenties." Wrapped in a rug and bathrobe, sitting in a wheelchair amidst the orchids of his sweltering greenhouse, the General describes himself to Marlowe as "a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life" who seems "to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider." His complaint is that he is "being blackmailed again." As he explains, he has recently "paid a man named Joe Brody five thousand dollars to let my younger daughter Carmen alone;" he then proceeds to show Marlowe a new demand for $1,000 from a man named Geiger for what Geiger says are gambling debts. Geiger's stationery indicates that he is a dealer in "Rare Books and DeLuxe Editions."

In the course of their conversation, Marlowe gets the General's opinion of his children: "Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies." Marlowe also learns about another member of the family, Rusty Regan, Vivian's third and most recent husband who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Regan's past accomplishments include work as a bootlegger and service as an officer in the I.R.A. The General has in fact been quite taken by the young man's tales of the Irish revolution, and Marlowe is soon amused and perplexed to learn that virtually everyone, daughters and police included, assume he has been hired to find Regan.

But, sticking to his primary suspect, Marlowe soon learns that Geiger's real business is a rather high-class lending library of dirty books. He locates Geiger's house and parks outside in the dying light to perform a little surveillance. The rain which has been threatening all afternoon drips through the leaking top of his convertible, and, typically, he turns to a pocket flask in his glove compartment for comfort. Carmen arrives and enters. Shortly afterward a flash of "hard white light" comes from the house in conjunction with a scream—a scream that "had a sound of half-pleasurable shock, an accent of drunkenness, an overtone of pure idiocy. It was a nasty sound." By the time Marlowe gets to the house, three shots have been fired and there is the sound of someone fleeing.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Another popular Chandler novel chronicling the adventures of Phillip Marlowe is The Long Goodbye, published in 1953. This novel was made into a Hollywood film (1973) directed by Robert Altman and starring Elliot Gould.
  • Al Clark's Raymond Chandler in Hollywood (1982) explores Chandler's life when he was writing screenplays for films such as Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia.
  • In 1994, Robert Parker, considered by many to be Chandler's successor as king of the hardboiled detective novel, wrote Perchance to Dream, a sequel to The Big Sleep. Parker also finished the novel Chandler was working on when he died: Poodle Springs (1986).
  • Edward Thorpe's Chandlertown: The Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe (1983) examines the role Los Angeles plays in Chandler's detective fiction.

Marlowe's discovery of what has happened is revealed in a manner that is virtually a trademark of Chandlerian exposition. After building suspense with mysterious flashes, sudden gunfire, and an unidentified person running away, Chandler opens our first look at the scene with one of Marlowe's characteristically deadpan remarks: "Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead." As we begin to read that statement, we sense that at least some of the suspense is about to be resolved. But its last phrase brings us up abruptly with the recognition that our expectations were too simplistic. Thus chastened, and with a smile for the author's almost perverse sense of comic relief, we attend more warily to Marlowe's typically dispassionate survey of the room and its every detail:

It had a low beamed ceiling … brown plaster walls decked out with strips of Chinese embroidery and Chinese and Japanese prints … a thick pinkish Chinese rug … bits of old silk tossed around, as if whoever lived there had to have a piece he could reach out and thumb … a black desk with carved gargoyles at the corners and behind it a yellow satin cushion on a polished black chair with carved arms and back … the pungent aftermath of cordite and the sickish aroma of ether.

Only after that exhaustive catalogue do we get any information about what most interests us, the people.

On a sort of low dais at one end of the room there was a high-backed teakwood chair in which Miss Carmen Sternwood was sitting on a fringed orange shawl. She was sitting very straight, with her hands on the arms of the chair, her knees close together, her body stiffly erect in the pose of an Egyptian goddess, her chin level, her small bright teeth shining between her parted lips. Her eyes were wide open. The dark slate color of the iris had devoured the pupil. They were mad eyes. She seemed to be unconscious, but she didn't have the pose of unconsciousness. She looked as if, in her mind, she was doing something very important and making a fine job of it. Out of her mouth came a tinny chuckling noise which didn't change her expression or even move her lips.

She was wearing a pair of long jade earrings. They were nice earrings and had probably cost a couple of hundred dollars. She wasn't wearing anything else.

Geiger, we are told after a similarly lengthy description, "was very dead."

This very calculated pacing serves several functions. First of all, it impresses us with the detective's method: having access only to objective data, he must weigh all details equally if he is to avoid overlooking one that might prove critical. But, more importantly, for Marlowe himself such pacing and apparent concern for objectivity provide a necessary check on his own subjective sensibilities. This kind of emotional control is further related to Chandler's notion of an "objective method" of writing in which dialogue and description become vehicles of emotion (see Chapter 7). That is, Chandler—and Marlowe—recognize that subjectivity is the ground of human experience and motivation, rather than objective reality. But, any one individual—Marlowe or the reader—has only the external indications of that subjectivity, that inner activity, from which to draw conclusions about any particular person. It was Chandler's desire to convey emotion and character not by describing them, but by demonstrating them through dialogue and physical details. A continued analysis of the plot and of Chandler's manner of relating it should enlighten the point.

Following Geiger's death, Marlowe discovers that the books from his store are being moved to the apartment of Joe Brody, the man whom the General mentioned as a recipient of $5,000 of his blackmail money. Agnes, the woman who worked in Geiger's store, is evidently assisting Brody in his plot to take over the business.

Back at Geiger's house, Marlowe runs into Eddie Mars, whom he describes with the same detached thoroughness as he had the furniture. He is

a gray man, all gray, except for his polished black shoes and two scarlet diamonds in his gray satin tie that looked like the diamonds on roulette layouts. His shirt was gray and his double-breasted suit of soft, beautifully cut flannel. Seeing Carmen he took a gray hat off and his hair underneath it was gray and as fine as if it had been sifted through gauze. His thick gray eyebrows had that indefinably sporty look. He had a long chin, a nose with a hook to it, thoughtful gray eyes that had a slanted look because the fold of skin over his upper lid came down over the corner of the lid itself.

His "colorlessness" is also a characteristic of Chandler's descriptive technique and, as we will see later (Chapter 7), another device by which he imparts meaning.

Mars is the operator of The Cypress Club, a local gambling establishment, and considers himself just a businessman. He claims to own the house in which Geiger was living and says he was just passing by to check on his tenant. But Marlowe is skeptical. He has already learned that Mars is also a good friend of Vivian Sternwood and that he has, in fact, financed some of her gambling sprees. It also appears that there was more connection between Mars and Geiger than the simple tenant-land-lord relationship. If nothing else, Geiger's was a business that needed protection and Mars was the man with the contacts and power to deliver it. But the exact nature of their relationship must await further development.

Marlowe shortly finds his attention occupied by a small man with "tight brilliant eyes that wanted to look hard, and looked as hard as oysters on the half shell." His name is Harry Jones and he is selling information. His information concerns Eddie Mars's wife, Mona. Mona Mars, it is generally agreed, disappeared about the same time as Rusty Regan and popular consensus has it that they left together. Mona's presumed relationship with Regan is also believed to be the primary impetus behind Eddie Mars's relationship with Vivian. But Harry Jones has information which suggests otherwise. Harry is a mouthpiece for Agnes, the bookstore clerk assumed to be allied with Joe Brody, and their association represents yet another fragmented piece of the local rackets organization at war with itself, a primary subplot. Agnes has recently seen Mona and is willing to divulge her whereabouts for sufficient cash.

Harry is too loyal to Agnes to convey the information himself and insists that Marlowe meet him later with the money, and he will take him to her. When Marlowe arrives at the appointed rendezvous, he discovers that Lash Canino, one of Eddie Mars's enforcers, has gotten there ahead of him and is trying to get Harry to tell him where Agnes is and what she knows. After Harry finally relents and gives him a false address to placate him, Canino offers whiskey to seal their "friendship." Harry dies quickly from the cyanide in the liquor as Marlowe stands by helplessly on the other side of the wall. He must wait until later for his chance at this embodiment of evil whom Harry had described simply as the "brown man": "Short, heavy set, brown hair, brown eyes, and always wears brown clothes and a brown hat. Even wears a brown suede raincoat. Drives a brown coupe. Everything brown for Mr. Canino."

With the aid of a chance phone call from Agnes, Marlowe makes contact with her, gets her information, and heads out into the hills where Mona Mars was spotted. The rain that has pervaded the book is now very heavy, and as Marlowe nears the appointed site, in his words, "Fate stage-managed the whole thing." His car skids off the slick roadway, and he finds himself near Art Huck's Garage, a hot-car processing establishment associated with Eddie Mars's rackets. Canino is there and, without much ado, Marlowe is over-powered and knocked unconscious.

When he comes to, Marlowe finds himself handcuffed, bound, and alone in a room with a woman. The woman is Mona Mars. Despite his condition, Marlowe manages to amuse her with his bright chatter. She is particularly amused that he thinks she is being held prisoner. She even removes her platinum wig, disclosing her bald head which she claims to have had shaved herself "to show Eddie I was willing to do what he wanted me to do—hide out. That he didn't need to have me guarded. I wouldn't let him down. I love him." Eventually, Marlowe's tireless talk manages to persuade her to help him escape rather than wait to see what his fate might be when Canino returns.

But before Marlowe can get well outside the house, Canino is back. When Canino goes inside, Marlowe starts his car and provokes him to fire from the window. Finally, the ruse draws Canino from the house and, with a bit of cooperation from Mona, Marlowe manages to get the drop on him. After Canino has fired six wild shots, Marlowe steps calmly from his hiding place, asks simply "Finished?" and fires four shots of his own into "the brown man," thus ending his reign of terror—and marking Marlowe's only killing in the novels.

Next morning, the sun is shining and Marlowe makes his way first to the police and then to General Sternwood to explain his findings and activities. General Sternwood is quite distressed that the police have been revolved at all. Marlowe more or less apologizes by explaining that he has assumed from the beginning that there was more to the General's interest in the case than the simple matter of blackmail over debts. As he explains, "I was convinced that you put those Geiger notes up to me chiefly as a test, and that you were a little afraid Regan might somehow be involved in an attempt to blackmail you." Marlowe further elaborates that his disposition of the case has been based on the assumption that the police are not likely to over-look anything obvious in the course of their investigations. He sets himself distinctly apart from the more traditional detective of fiction:

I'm not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don't expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it…. if they overlook anything … it's apt to be some thing looser and vaguer, like a man of Geiger's type sending you his evidence of debt and asking you to pay like a gentleman.

His explanations are sufficient to restore the General's confidence. The old man allows that he is just "a sentimental old goat" and tacitly admits that Regan has indeed been his primary concern all along; he offers Marlowe $1,000 to "Find him…. Just find him."

On his way out of the house, Marlowe spots Carmen and returns the little pearl-handled pistol which he had taken away from her in a scene where she tried to kill Joe Brody. "I brought you back your artillery," he tells her. "I cleaned it and loaded it up. Take my tip—don't shoot it at people, unless you get to be a better shot. Remember?" Carmen's immediate reaction is, "Teach me to shoot." And giggling in her strange way, she persuades him to drive her to an old abandoned oil field on the family property. Here, amid these reminders of the family fortune and its corruption, Marlowe sets up a target. But as he is walking back from it, "she showed me all her sharp little teeth and brought the gun up and started to hiss…. 'Stand there, you son of a bitch,' she said." Marlowe laughs and she fires at him—four times before he takes the gun from her. He has anticipated the scene and loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen makes a whistling sound in her throat and passes out.

After Marlowe has taken her home, he engages her older sister Vivian in conversation. From this encounter, then, we finally gather enough details to begin to make sense of this curious and deadly family tragedy. What we discover is that Carmen stands at the center of the troubles. She suffers, among other things, from epileptic attacks, as her behavior at the scene where Geiger was killed, and the strange hissing, giggling noises she frequently utters have already warned Marlowe.

When Regan disappeared, it was because Carmen killed him—in the very same fashion in which she tried to kill Marlowe. Marlowe explains her actions, conjecturally, as a combination of her epilepsy, adolescent lust, and the almost inevitable neurosis fostered by the circumstances in which she was reared. As he tells Vivian, "Night before last when I got home she was in my apartment. She'd kidded the manager into letting her in to wait for me. She was in my bed—naked. I threw her out on her ear. I guess maybe Regan did the same to her sometime. But you can't do that to Carmen."

Vivian admits that Carmen killed Regan and explains her own actions and motivations:

She came home and told me about it just like a child. She's not normal. I knew the police would get it all out of her. In a little while she would even brag about it. And if dad knew, he would call them instantly and tell them the whole story. And sometime in that night he would die. It's not his dying—it's what he would be thinking just before he died. Rusty wasn't a bad fellow. I didn't love him. He was all right, I guess. He just didn't mean anything to me, one way or another, alive or dead, compared with keeping it from dad.

Vivian, of course, is not the type to approach reality head on; none of the Sternwoods are. As she perceived the situation, her only option was to try to cover up the matter, and the only person she knew powerful enough to help her do that was her gambling acquaintance Eddie Mars. Mars, of course, was only too glad to be of service; the incident clearly gave him leverage on the Sternwood fortune. Canino, no doubt, did the dirty work of stashing the body. But Mars's commitment to service went even further. When the police appeared to be coming too close to the truth, he had his own wife, Mona, hide out to make it appear that she and Regan had left together, thus giving the police a reasonable explanation for Regan's disappearance.

But Mars's greed was finally stronger than his patience. Geiger's whole blackmailing scheme appears, in fact, to have been a ploy sponsored by Mars. As Marlowe theorizes to Vivian:

Eddie Mars was behind Geiger, protecting him and using him for a cat's-paw. Your father sent for me instead of paying up, which showed he wasn't scared about anything. Eddie Mars wanted to know that. He had something on you and he wanted to know if he had it on the General too. If he had, he could collect a lot of money in a hurry. If not, he would have to wait until you got your share of the family fortune, and in the meantime be satisfied with whatever spare cash he could take away from you across the roulette table.

But this plan did not account for the unpredictable influence of youthful passions. Owen Taylor, the Sternwood chauffeur, had his own romantic interest in Carmen. He was violently affected by her association with Geiger and when he discovered Geiger taking nude pictures of her, pictures that were to be a part of the blackmail plot, he killed him. It was Taylor's fading footsteps that Marlowe heard in that first scene at Geiger's house. Geiger's death then triggered a series of subplots. One of these involved his smut-lending business. With Geiger gone, Joe Brody moved to take over the trade, largely with the help of Agnes, Geiger's former assistant. This move persuaded Carol Lundgren, Geiger's young homosexual roommate, that Brody had been responsible for Geiger's death, so Lundgren killed Brody. Harry Jones was then killed by Canino when Harry tried to work a scheme with Agnes to sell information about Mona to Marlowe. And Mars, without his front man, was forced into covering his own tracks.

Such is the mushrooming effect of one poorly conceived decision. Even an apparently well-intentioned act, such as Vivian's effort to cover up Carmen's murder of Regan, can become the initial stone from which an expanding circle of evil radiates. Four deaths result from Vivian's actions. Owen Taylor kills Geiger because he does not approve of his relationship with Carmen. Carol Lundgren kills Joe Brody because he thinks Brody killed Geiger. Canino kills Harry Jones because he is getting too close to the truth and killing is Canino's job. And Marlowe kills Canino.

But curiously enough, Marlowe must also share, at least partially, in the blame for Harry's death. It was Marlowe, after all, who mentioned to Mars that he was being followed; this tip called Mars's attention to Harry's involvement in the story and led ultimately to his death. Indeed, Marlowe must finally recognize himself to be more subtly and pervasively involved in this very complex story than even he at first imagined. Part of his realization comes when he asks the butler, concerning the General, "What did this Regan fellow have that bored into him so?" The answer he gets is, "Youth, sir…. And the soldier's eye…. If I may say so, sir, not unlike yours." Understanding the similarity of Marlowe and Regan, at least in the General's eyes, is central to understanding the story. As readers, we, like Marlowe, begin to perceive that Vivian's decision to hide Carmen's murder of Regan may not, in fact, have been motivated solely by a desire to protect her sister or even to protect her ailing father. Rather, she may well have surmised that Regan was more important to the General than his own daughters. Thus, she may—rightly—have been more fearful of the unknown consequences of the discovery of the murder by her father than of opening herself to the blackmailing demands of Eddie Mars. Marlowe must feel more than a little uneasy as he realizes that he has been drawn into this family saga as a substitute for Regan, one surrogate son hired to ascertain the whereabouts of another, while the daughters slip ever further into the grips of gangsters.

But a sixth death in the book, that of Owen Taylor, may help illuminate our search for "first causes," for a place to lay ultimate responsibility for the chain of murders chronicled here. Shortly after the scene in which he kills Geiger, Taylor's car is found in the surf off Lido pier with him still in it. The hand throttle had been set halfway down, and he was apparently sapped before the car plunged through the barricades into the sea. But this case is never solved, although Joe Brody is a prime suspect. When the first film version of The Big Sleep was being prepared, the screenwriters even sent a query to Chandler: "Who killed Owen Taylor?" Chandler's response was a simple "I don't know."

The incident is important because it calls attention to Chandler's general distaste for the typical demand that detective stories should tie up every loose end. Furthermore, it underscores his deep-seated aversion to strictly rational explanations for human actions. If we look closely at Vivian's decision to cover Carmen's deadly act, for example, we simply can not devise a purely rational account of it. Given the implied strife between the two sisters, Vivian's less-than-loving relationship with her father, and the fact that Carmen's victim was her own husband (even if she did not love him), Vivian's act simply can not be circumscribed within rational bounds. Nevertheless, given Vivian's character, her environment, and an emotionally-charged situation, we can readily believe that she might make such a decision. The deeper we penetrate the motives of Chandler's characters, the deeper we find the morass of human passion and unpredictability.

But if Chandler is not interested in constructing neatly rational puzzles, what exactly is he up to here? We can glean at least a partial answer to this perplexing question from a close examination of the opening scene and some related passages. When Marlowe first comes to call on the Sternwood millions, his attention is arrested by a curious drama in glass:

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.

Critics have often complained that Chandler was overly concerned with sentimentalism and the tropes of the chivalric romance; the kind of elements on which this glass panel focuses. But even a cursory look at Chandler's overt references to the romance and knight-errantry within the novel, as here, indicates a decided touch of irony in his treatment of the subject. Indeed, The Big Sleep might be read as a chronicle of the failure of romance. In the midst of one of his confrontations with Carmen, for example, Marlowe turns to his chess board for distraction. He makes a move with a knight, then retracts it and comments, "the move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." And near the end of the book, he comments again on the knight in the stained-glass window saying, he "still wasn't getting anywhere untying the naked damsel from the tree."

Carmen, of course, is the naked damsel in distress in this book, and finally we and Marlowe must ask ourselves if he has really been any more successful in aiding her than has the knight in armor trapped forever in the glass. And we must agree that he has not.

About all that can be said for Marlowe here as the "romantic hero" is that he does, at least, keep Carmen from killing anyone else while he is on the scene. And he keeps her from being killed or from facing the harsh justice of the legal system—rather, he advises Vivian to "take her away…. Hell, she might even get herself cured, you know. It's been done." But he has been totally ineffectual in penetrating the mystery of this family and its seemingly inexorable involvement with the world of crime. He has achieved no ennobling resolution. He has had no success in getting at the heart of this saga which is finally the story of two women, two sisters, Carmen and Vivian, and the last days of a dying old patriarch. Marlowe's understanding is hardly less limited than Vivian's, and she can not bear to probe her actions very deeply:

I knew Eddie Mars would bleed me white, but I didn't care. I had to have help and I could only get it from somebody like him…. There have been times when I hardly believed it all myself. And other times when I had to get drunk quickly—whatever time of day it was. Awfully damn quickly.

In Vivian's reluctance to face her relation to evil squarely, Chandler reminds us all of the limits of our ability to approach and comprehend the truth. Even if we still possess the idealistic, romantic sensibilities that can drive us to noble actions, the consequences, like the motives, are never really unadulterated. And finally, like Marlowe, we are impotent to untie the knots of our lives. He tries, like Vivian, simply to avoid seeing, to deaden his sensibilites; in the book's last paragraph he "stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches." But, as he recognizes, "they didn't do me any good." Avoiding complexity does not resolve it.

As he walks out of the Sternwood house for the last time, Marlowe comments: "Outside, the bright gardens had a haunted look, as though small wild eyes were watching me from behind the bushes, as though the sunshine itself had a mysterious something in its light." At the end, there is still mystery—the mystery of the human condition, of life and death in a world of fate and chance and evil.

Source: Jerry Speir, "The First Novels: The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window," in Raymond Chandler, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, pp. 19–31.

Roger Shatzkin

In the following essay, Shatzkin compares the novel and film versions of The Big Sleep, finding that in both confusion and illogicality are natural parts of the terrain.

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep appears to fit that category of novel critic Edmund Wilson identified as capable of being "poured … on to the screen as easily as if it had been written in the studios …" ("The Boys in the Back Room" [1940]). In many respects, director Howard Hawks and his collaborators did succeed in pouring the essence of Chandler into their 1946 film. Most notably, they recreated the novel's atmosphere of evanescent corruption and emphasized character at the expense of formal considerations of plot. Nevertheless, the glibness of Wilson's metaphor disguises the "filtering" process operant in any transfer of narrative from one medium to another: Chandler's story of his hero's failed individualistic and Romantic quest became on screen a dark romantic comedy that explores the feasibility of human and sexual commitment between a man and a woman, in this case the film's stars and real-life lovers, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (In practical terms, Hawks was making a sequel to To Have and Have Not [1944], which first starred the pair.)

For The Big Sleep, there are added problems with Wilson's simple-minded notion of adaptation: Chandler's rather loosely plotted and crowded narrative (synthesized ingeniously out of four pulp magazine stories) became even more complex on screen. The reason for this was a seemingly straightforward filtering mechanism: the Hollywood Production Code's objection to "censorable" aspects of the novel. "Much of the illogic of the film," James Monaco has written, "is simply due to cuts which were made to conform to the Code." But let us take a closer look at some of the misconceptions surrounding the novel and the film, and the apparently intertwined issues of incomprehensibility and censorship.

The first misconception: The Big Sleep, both as novel and film, defies comprehension. True, Raymond Chandler confessed to suffering "plotconstipation," wished to possess "one of these facile plotting brains, like Erie [Stanley] Gardner or somebody," and admitted that The Big Sleep "happens to be more interested in people than in plot …" And granted, director Hawks persisted in glorifying the illogic of his adaptation: in interview after interview he insisted that he "never could figure the story out …" that he "can't follow it," and so on. What is more, one of the oft repeated anecdotes about a film's production links author and auteur in mutual confusion: during the filming, Bogart, the picture's Philip Marlowe, apparently asked Hawks just who killed one of the minor characters, a chauffeur named Owen Taylor. (Taylor turns up in his employer's Buick, awash in the Pacific.) Since neither Hawks nor his screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett knew, they cabled Chandler. And Chandler wired back: "I don't know."

For the record: with a little effort, novel and film can be comprehended, if what is meant by that is that their plots can be linearized, sorted out. (Paul Jensen deserves credit for mentioning this in his article on Chandler in Film Comment, November-December, 1974.) But to shift perspective, the popular myths about The Big Sleep are important. Though their events and characterizations may be ultimately deciphered, novel and film are texts about confusion; impenetrability, if not their final result, is at their core. So the question becomes, not "who killed Owen Taylor?" but, more properly (to echo Edmund Wilson's skepticism about detective fiction), "who cares who killed Owen Taylor?"

Neither Chandler, nor Marlowe, the novel's detective-narrator, seems to have cared. Hired by the elderly, infirm General Sternwood to investigate some gambling debts his younger daughter, Carmen, has incurred, debts which in turn may become the basis for blackmail, Marlowe plunges into intrigue more complex than circumstances would seem to warrant. For one thing, the General's sonin-law, "Rusty" Regan is missing, and his older daughter, Regan's wife Vivian, suspects that Marlowe has been engaged to find him. As is clear in Chandler: Carmen's ostensible blackmailer, Arthur Geiger, runs a pornographic lending library; Geiger is murdered at his home in the presence of a stupefied Carmen; he has provided drugs and photographed her nude for future extortion schemes. Marlowe rescues Carmen, entering Geiger's place after hearing shots and observing two men leaving in quick succession. The first man turns out to be Taylor, who drives off to his mysterious death.

Marlowe (and Chandler) forget about Taylor. Attention shifts instead to the second man out of the house, Joe Brody, who, like Taylor, is an ex-boyfriend of Carmen's. Brody somehow obtains the negatives of Carmen and proceeds to blackmail her. Marlowe goes to Brody's apartment to recover the negatives and pictures; he first disarms Brody and then Carmen, who has come to retrieve the blackmail materials herself. After Carmen leaves, Carol Lundgren, Geiger's valet and lover shoots Brody, mistakenly thinking that Brody has killed Geiger. As Marlowe later explains, Taylor, chivalrously defending his old flame Carmen, had actually done the deed.

Either William Faulkner or Leigh Brackett (Hawks's original screenwriters) was the person concerned about what happened to Taylor. One of them wrote some dialogue for a scene, patterned after one in the novel (but cut from the final film), that sums up, more neatly than Chandler, what happened. In this scene, mid-way through the novel and screenplay, Marlowe is explaining his involvement in the affair to the district attorney. In the novel, Marlowe merely alludes to the events that have transpired and then responds to the D.A.'s queries. In the screenplay, the D.A., in dialogue never filmed, adds his own summation:

So Taylor killed Geiger because he was in love with the Sternwood girl. And Brody followed Taylor, sapped him and took the photographs and pushed Taylor into the ocean. And the punk [Lundgren] killed Brody because the punk thought he should have inherited Geiger's business and Brody was throwing him out.

Although no one involved with the production seems to recall this unshot speech, the screenwriters' D.A. would have settled the question of Taylor's demise once and for all, tying up a "loose end" over which Chandler himself apparently never fretted.

Faulkner or Brackett's dialogue here strives for order (despite Hawks's recollection that "there was no sense in making [the story] logical. So we didn't"). And the dialogue, in changing Lundgren's motivation from a lover's revenge also manifests another tendency toward "logic." And this brings us to the second misconception about the film: how it censored the novel.

Throughout the two drafts of the script, the screenwriters anticipated that many sections of the novel might offend the Production Code—matters of sexual conduct, police misconduct, Marlowe's final decision to let a murderer go free—and they took steps to circumvent possible problems. Many of the novel's "objectionable" aspects did have to be cut from the final film. Geiger's pornography racket is nowhere mentioned (we just see some posh clients skulking about his "bookstore"), nor is the homosexual relationship between Geiger and Lundgren. Both of these omissions cause confusions (as does the film's ending to a degree, but for reasons other than censorship). But other changes, such as presenting a clothed Carmen at Geiger's and later at Marlowe's apartment, do not alter the final quality of the film. A recent assessment, such as Gavin Lambert's that the movie "seems badly hobbled by censorship" (The Dangerous Edge, 1975), hardly seems appropriate.

Prior censorship was the rule in the screenplays. The screenwriters transformed Geiger's business from pornography and extortion to the vaguer endeavor of blackmail alone (late in the second script draft Marlowe actually finds packing cases of "manilla filing envelopes, ledgers, etc."). Lundgren's relationship to Geiger becomes all business. Even Carmen Sternwood's nymphomania is de-sexed (though one wonders how Martha Vickers sultry performance in the film could have possibly jibed with the script's conception). Carmen's psychotic and homicidal behavior is brought on by jealousy. She murders Regan and attempts to murder Marlowe, according to Faulkner and Brackett, because she has lost the affections of both of them (at least in her mind) to her sister Vivian, and not because they are the only two men who refuse to sleep with her. And though Hawks has credited the Production Code office with rejecting the novel's ending and, when prodded, providing their own, Faulkner and Brackett had already altered Chandler's denouement in their first script. (In letting Carmen go free to be "cured" in the book, Marlowe violates the Code's provision against unpunished crimes. The film's ending is actually a third script revision of the novel's ending.)

But Faulkner and Brackett's careful anticipation of the Code and their finely wrought "logic" were to no avail. Hawks excised a number of scenes from their screenplay as he shot. And the filming, done from the second draft or Temporary script, had run too long. So "Jules Furthman was called in," according to Leigh Brackett, "for a rewrite to cut the remaining or unshot portion [of the script] into a manageable length…." Whatever coherence the original screenwriters had concocted (or preserved from Chandler) was eradicated in shortening an overlong screenplay; it was not the direct evisceration of the novel for the censors, as Monaco and other critics have averred, that cause the movie's notorious incomprehensibility.

But the film, in its final and less "coherent" form, becomes—in the best Hawks tradition—a type of Rorschach test in which the elipses can be filled in by the audience. And, paradoxically, it moves closer to the novel as a result. In the minds of viewers imbued with the requisite imagination, the spirit of the book's censorable content remains, albeit sometimes between the lines. As Charles Gregory has written, despite the fact that the movie had to avoid "explicit references to sex, dope and pornography that are woven into the novel … somehow the film reflects all this to the sophisticated viewer without ever drawing the ire of the censors or even the notice of the prudes."

Typical of the cuts made to shorten the script was the removal of a shot in the first scene showing Owen Taylor washing the Sternwood Buick as Marlowe passes from the General's mansion to his hothouse (a direct transposition from the novel intended to identify the chauffeur and foreshadow his complicity in Geiger's murder). In the film, Marlowe simply walks from the mansion's hallway into the greenhouse—the magic of film editing has connected the two edifices. And Taylor gets whisked away to the limbo of legend.

But as Leigh Brackett observed: "Audiences came away feeling that they had seen the hell and all of a film even if they didn't rightly know what it was all about. Again, who cared? It was grand fun, with sex and danger and a lot of laughs…." Again, who cared? Let us turn to the novel and film in more detail to see if we can decipher what they are all about—and if it matters if they are about anything.

For that matter, what is Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep about? The novel functions as an entertainment, a sometimes self-satiric, self-contained world of double-cross, moral and political corruption in which our confusion as readers helps engender our involvement and our identification with the hero, Philip Marlowe. The central movement of the novel, though, focuses on its protagonist's quest, not for the solution to a puzzle or a mystery (though that is necessarily accomplished), but primarily for his double, his doppelganger. It is this covert quest—which informs the bulk of Chandler's novels but is most prominent in The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye (1954)—and its requisite failure that create many of the novel's strong, if fugitive, resonances.

Marlowe's search for Terence "Rusty" Regan is the hidden energizing force of the novel (hidden, in some ways, from Chandler himself). It is also the genesis of the novel's seeming confusion and impenetrability. But the pattern of Marlowe's search for Regan does not emerge readily from the narrative. Throughout roughly the first half of the novel, questions about Regan, Vivian Sternwood's missing husband, keep surfacing, but Marlowe's chief preoccupation lies with keeping Carmen safe and the Sternwood's family name unbesmirched through the three deaths that touch on them (i.e., Geiger's, Taylor's, and Brody's). Marlowe's identification with Regan is established at his initial visit to the General (where he replaces Regan as the old man's sensual surrogate—drinking and smoking for Sternwood's vicarious enjoyment—and is hired for a job that Regan, the General's confidant as well as son-in-law, would probably have undertaken). But Marlowe does not turn his attention to the missing man until the mystery that propels the beginning half of the action, concerning Carmen's blackmail, has ostensibly been resolved. And all along, he denies various allegations that he is looking for Regan, even though, ironically, they are true.

At this point, to better understand Regan's place in the novel, it will help to clarify the structure of The Big Sleep. Writing on the film, James Monaco has offered a helpful description that applies equally well to the novel. He notes in the movie's construction a "dual structure: a 'surface' mystery (usually the client's) and a 'deep' mystery (the metaphysical or political problem which presents itself to the detective)." Fredric Jameson views Chandler's dual structure slightly differently, noting a tendency for the novels to mislead readers because a Chandler work "passes itself off as a murder mystery." Jameson points out that "In fact Chandler's stories are first and foremost descriptions of searches …" Here the "murder mystery" corresponds to Monaco's "surface" enigma, the "search" to the "deep" structure. Jameson later expresses the double nature of the narrative in terms of time:

The final element in Chandler's characteristic form is that the underlying crime is always old, lying half-forgotten in the pasts of the characters before the book begins. This is the principal reason why the readers attention is diverted from [the underlying crime]; he assumes it to be a part of the dimension of the present….

Relating this to The Big Sleep then, this is what happens: the crime in the past that generates the whole novel, yet which is unknown to Marlowe or the reader at the outset of the book, is the murder of Regan by Carmen Sternwood. Regan, like some entombed character in Poe, lies mouldering in a sump in the oilfield below the Sternwood mansion while four more deaths result from the unrecognized cover-up of his demise. And Marlowe spends all his initial energy treating the symptoms of the case, the surface of the present, before turning to their cause in the past.

I do not believe that Chandler was in complete touch with the metaphysical significance of Regan for his protagonist. Chandler, as is most clearly exemplified in his Atlantic essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," written five years after The Big Sleep, tended to conceive of his hero in extremely idealized terms:

… Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid…. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world!

Despite Chandler's notion of the hero as knight in a corrupt world (a conception taken up too uncritically by many who have written about him), Marlowe is a far from simplistic character. In the beginning of The Big Sleep, he does literally project himself into a tableau on a stained-glass panel in the Sternwood home, depicting "a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady … [who] didn't have any clothes on …" "I would have to climb up there and help him," Marlowe says to himself. "He didn't seem to be really trying." However, later in the novel, when a naked Carmen invades his bedroom, he looks down at his chessboard and concludes that "Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." The thought is reemphasized when he enters the Sternwood house for the last time and observes the knight, who "still wasn't getting anywhere…."

In short, a dialectic exists within the novel: Marlowe begins as knight, but is forced to cope in a sordid world: to do so he must be willing to summon a darker side of himself. Chandler's idealization represses this darker side. This is where Regan as "double" comes in: Chandler fractionalizes his hero into two characters. Regan, missing and dead (ultimately repressed!) throughout the entire novel represents the potentially corruptible side of his protagonist which Chandler cannot brook. Regan has crossed the line. He is beyond the law all the way—a successful gangster-bootlegger. He commits himself sexually to women: he marries Vivian Sternwood; he (probably) has an affair with Mona Mars, before and after she is married. He commits himself to public social causes: he fought for the I.R.A. in 1922. He commits himself to having (if not coveting) money: he carries fifteen thousand dollars in bills at all times. In fact, the D.A. surmises that the real reason Sternwood hired Marlowe in the first place was to find out if Regan had betrayed his trust by being the real force behind the blackmail instigated by Geiger (ironically, he is). In sum, Regan is Marlowe's alter ego, an adult version of the detective's adolescent, solipsistic Romantic, who in "growing up" has taken the fall.

Throughout the novel we are given hints of the Marlowe-Regan bond. Marlowe resembles Regan: the D.A.'s man Bernie Ohls describes Regan as a "big guy as tall as you and a shade heavier." Both men are in their thirties. Their relationships to women intersect completely. Vivian Sternwood and Mona Mars are both attracted to Marlowe as they were to Regan, and Carmen tries to shoot Marlowe, as she did Regan, because he too would not sleep with her. (The link of the two men through the women is possibly covert evidence of Marlowe's repressed homoerotic attraction to Regan.) General Sternwood's butler explicitly compares the two men, and the General takes a paternal (and perhaps homosexual) interest in both. And when Marlowe confronts a photograph of Regan, the detective describes his impressions in terms he might as easily use for himself. It was "Not the face of a tough guy and not the face of a man who could be pushed around much by anybody … [It was] a face that looked a little taut, the face of a man who would move fast and play for keeps…." Marlowe concludes portentously, "I would know that face if I saw it."

So Marlowe's search for Regan represents maximally an investigation into his own identity, into his own soul's potential weaknesses and arrested tendencies. In his final soliloquy Marlowe intones the following famous lines in speaking of his entombed "brother" Regan:

Where did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was….

Marlowe, who when captive at one point made macabre jokes about his choice of casket and about Eddie Mars's henchman digging him a grave, finally comes face to face with his own mortality only through Regan. In so doing, he begins to understand his corruptibility, as well (on the ethical level as "knight" he has let murderess Carmen go unpunished). He is "part of the nastiness now …" and that is the full import of his search. For the reader, as Fredric Jameson has put it, the end of the novel "is able to bring us up short, without warning, against the reality of death itself, stale death, reaching out to remind the living of its own mouldering resting place."

Paradoxically, Faulkner, Brackett, and Hawks's screen version immediately makes the Marlowe-Regan connection much more explicit than in the novel. In the Hawksian tradition of professional equals, Marlowe's first dialogue with the General reveals that he and Regan have been respectful opponents during prohibition, each on a different side of the law ("We used to swap shots between drinks, or drinks between shots—whichever you like."). But if anything, Regan (mysteriously now named "Shawn") is invoked quickly only to be exorcised. Though the surface mystery in the film remains the same, still concerning Carmen's blackmail, the deep mystery will ultimately concern, as Monaco has pointed out, what gambler Eddie Mars "has" on Vivian Sternwood Rutledge (Lauren Bacall), here a divorcee. (In the novel, Mars is blackmailing Vivian over Carmen's murder of Regan; he has helped her dispose of Regan's body.) The question of what Mars "has" on Vivian masks the real thrust of Hawks's film, which is to determine with whom Vivian will ultimately side, and as in his best comedies whether or not she and Marlowe will realize their mutual romantic attraction.

To emphasize leading lady Bacall as Vivian, Hawks and his writers placed her in three scenes in which she does not appear in the novel (Marlowe returning Carmen to her home, his visit to Brody's apartment, his incarceration in Realito at the hands of Mars's man Canino); they lengthened one encounter from the book (Vivian's visit to Marlowe's office), and added one long scene that appears only in the film. This scene, the famous Cafe/Horserace double entendre sequence (mandated by Warners' front office a full year after the rest of the movie was in the can, to give the stars yet more exposure together) is indicative of a pattern of attraction-repulsion between Vivian and Marlowe that firmly establishes as the center of the film the question of their eventual fate together.

In almost every scene in which they appear together, up until the penultimate one, Marlowe and Vivian begin a wary, but cordial verbal sparring. But each encounter ends in witty vitriol ("Kissing is nice, but your father didn't hire me to sleep with you."). The first mode of verbal skirmishing is the substitute for and correlative of a romantic language founded on emotion that Hawks employs throughout his romantic "screwball" comedies. Though Hawks took this convention from his comedies, in The Big Sleep he left its significance open ended. The dialogue between Marlowe and Vivian can end in romance or—in keeping with Chandler, the tradition of the femme fatale in general and of film noir in particular—in betrayal.

Near the end of the film, an obligatory "lay off the case" scene with Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) was written into the film; it confirms that Marlowe's vacillating relationship with Vivian has become the film's deep structure and raison d'être. After Ohls has conveyed his message instructing Marlowe to desist, the detective recapitulates the case so far and indicates why he must go on:

"Bernie, put yourself in my shoes for a minute. A nice old guy has two daughters. One of them is, well, wonderful. And the other is not so wonderful. As a result somebody gets something on her. The father hires me to pay off. Before I can get to the guy, the family chauffeur kills him! But that didn't stop things. It just starts them. And two murders later I find out somebody's got something on wonderful."

So the film comes down to Marlowe's endeavors to "clear" and win "wonderful."

When the ending does come, it makes little plot sense. Marlowe and Vivian are united after the detective forces Mars, his only serious "rival," out of a door into a hail of machine-gun fire. In Jules Furthman's reworking of the conclusion, the only logical extra-textual explanation for Mars's death is that he, not Carmen, killed Regan, and that he is blackmailing Vivian by making her think Carmen did it.

If the narrative logic is flawed, the emotional logic is not. We care about Marlowe/Bogart and Vivian/Bacall; they have earned our respect through their mutual (and mostly verbal) abilities to cope with a hostile environment. And it is satisfying to see their compatibility, which we have sensed all along, romantically vindicated. Likewise, in the novel, despite his limitations, we care about Marlowe. His voice unifies the quicksilver and chaotic world in which he operates, a world in which almost all events can never be known but only hypothesized about. And that extends to one misplaced chauffeur, at sea in the depths of illogic, about whom one ultimately need not care. Peace to you, Owen Taylor.

Source: Roger Shatzkin, "Who Cares Who Killed Owen Taylor?" in The Modern American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1978, pp. 80–94.


Chandler, Raymond, The Big Sleep, Vintage, 1992, pp. 114, 204.

——, "The Simple Art of Murder," in Atlantic Monthly, December 1944, p. 59.

Davies, Russell, "Omnes Me Impune Lacessunt," in The World of Raymond Chandler, edited by Miriam Gross, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977, pp. 32–42.

James, Clive, "The Country behind the Hill," in The World of Raymond Chandler, edited by Miriam Gross, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977, pp. 116–26.

Linder, Daniel, "The Big Sleep," in the Explicator, Vol. 59, Issue 3, Spring 2001, p. 137.

MacShane, Frank, The Life of Raymond Chandler, Hammish Hamilton Ltd., 1986, p. 68.

Speir, Jerry, Raymond Chandler, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981, p. 30.

Further Reading

Durham, Philip, Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go: Raymond Chandler's Knight, University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Durham examines Marlowe's code of chivalric behavior in this ingenious study.

Hiney, Tom, Raymond Chandler: A Biography, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.

Hiney draws on Chandler's papers and letters to construct this engaging biography.

Marling, William, Raymond Chandler, Twayne, 1986.

Marling provides a solid and accessible introduction to Chandler's fiction in this study.

Van Dover, J. K., ed., The Critical Responses to Raymond Chandler, Greenwood, 1995.

This collection of essays covers a wide range of critical approaches to Chandler's novels.