An Introduction to The Big Sleep

Robert F. Moss

    Of Raymond Chandler's seven detective novels, his first, The Big Sleep (1939), is arguably his best. The story is structurally and thematically unified, the characters fully developed, and the style distinctive and sharp. When the novel was published, Chandler was fifty years old. He had already spent five years as a full-time writer of short stories and novellas for the pulp fiction magazine market, and during this apprenticeship had mastered his technique. Although it would be years before the novel received the critical recognition it deserved, the publication of The Big Sleep was a landmark in the history of the American hard-boiled detective novel. In the years that followed, Chandler's style and technique would be widely admired and imitated; his work would help establish the conventions of the genre that persist (in both detective novels and movies) to this day.

The Story 

    The Big Sleep begins with Philip Marlowe's taking an assignment to quash a blackmail attempt against Carmen Sternwood, the wild daughter of oil millionaire General Guy Sternwood. While they are talking, Marlowe learns that Rusty Regan--the ex-bootlegger husband of Sternwood's other daughter, Vivian--has been missing for a month, but the General stops short of asking Marlowe to find him. Marlowe begins investigating the blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger, and discovers that he is running a pornography racket on Hollywood Boulevard. He tails Geiger to his house, breaks inside, and finds Geiger shot dead and Carmen Sternwood naked and drugged. He takes Carmen home to the Sternwood mansion, then returns to the scene of the crime and discovers that Geiger's body has vanished.

    The next morning Marlowe learns three things: the Sternwoods' chauffeur (who once tried to elope with Carmen) was murdered during the night; crates of pornographic books are being removed from Geiger's store and taken to the apartment of a man named Joe Brody; and, Carmen Sternwood has received a third blackmail threat, this time involving nude photographs taken at Geiger's house the night before. Marlowe goes back to Geiger's house and finds Carmen there, looking for the negatives of the nude photos. They are about to leave when Eddie Mars, a gangster and gambling-club operator whose wife is suspected to have run away with Rusty Regan, arrives and questions them at gunpoint about Geiger's murder. Marlowe manages to talk himself out of the situation, then goes to confront Brody, who admits trying to move in on the pornography business but denies murdering Geiger. They are interrupted when Carmen Sternwood arrives with a gun and tries to get her photos back. Marlowe disarms her and sends her away, but another intruder barges in: Carol Lundgren, Geiger's gay lover, who kills Brody to revenge Geiger's death. Marlowe captures Lundgren and turns him over to the police. They lean on Marlowe for not reporting Geiger's murder sooner, and he agrees to a cover-up in which none of the murders are connected to the Sternwood family.

    Marlowe's job--quashing the blackmail--is technically over, but he decides to continue investigating on his own to learn more about Rusty Regan's disappearance. He goes to talk to Eddie Mars at the Cypress Club and finds Vivian Regan gambling at one of the roulette wheels. She wins big and leaves the club. Marlowe follows and saves her from a stick-up attempt. She makes a pass at him on the drive home, but he turns her down. When he gets back to his apartment, he finds Carmen Sternwood waiting naked in his bed. He rejects her as well.

    The next day Marlowe is tipped off to the whereabouts of Mona Mars, the woman who supposedly ran away with Regan. He follows the lead to a hot car drop in Rialto and is ambushed by Lash Canino, Eddie Mars's hired gun. Mona helps Marlowe escape, and he kills Canino in a gunfight. After again settling with the police and district attorney, Marlowe is summoned to the Sternwood mansion, where the General officially asks him to find Rusty Regan. As Marlowe is leaving, Carmen encourages him to take her to an abandoned oil field and teach her how to fire a pistol. He does so. Carmen has an epileptic fit and tries to shoot him, failing only because Marlowe had the foresight to load the gun with blanks. He returns to the Sternwood mansion and confronts Vivian, who admits that Carmen killed Regan because he, like Marlowe, refused her advances. Vivian and Eddie Mars covered up the killing by hiding Regan's body in an old oil sump and faking his disappearance.

    Despite the complicated and sometimes confusing plot, the heart of The Big Sleep is not the solution of the murders--the whodunit--but rather the world the story depicts and the movement of Marlowe within that world. Chandler's characters repeatedly comment on the corruption of Los Angeles and the modern world in general. The novel depicts a city in which pornographers and gamblers operate under the protection crooked policemen, young women use their sexuality to ruin men, and wealth can buy immunity from prosecution and damaging publicity. It is a fallen world where glamorous appearances mask sordid deeds and everyone is a grifter. 

    This world view is further advanced through Chandler's skillful description of setting. He is particularly vivid with sordid locations, from Marlowe's shabby office--with "venerable magazines" and "net curtains that needed laundering"--to the Fulwider building's vacant offices, "one gilt elevator", and "tarnished and well-missed spitoon on a gnawed rubber mat." In sharp contrast to these low places is the elegant Sternwood mansion in the Hollywood foothills, where the family "could no longer smell the stale sump water or the oil, but they could still look out their front windows and see what had made them rich. If they wanted to." Consistent throughout the novel's setting is the sense of a once-grand place now gone to seed, as in Eddie Mars's Cypress Club, a "rambling frame mansion" that was once a rich man's home, became a hotel, then ended up an illegal casino. The club has about it "a general air of nostalgic decay"; the ballroom is "still a beautiful room," but there is "roulette in it instead of measured, old fashioned dancing." 

    It is within this corrupt, fallen world that Marlowe must operate. After six years gestation in pulp fiction, he is Chandler's detective hero fully developed. As the story unfolds, Marlowe's code of conduct is articulated and tested. Key to this code is professional pride: honestly performing the job for which he has been hired. After he saves Vivian Regan from the robbery attempt outside the Cypress Club, she offers herself to him. Marlowe kisses her but refuses to go further. "Kissing you is nice," he tells her, "but your father didn't hire me to sleep with you. . . . The first time we met I told you I was a detective. Get it through your lovely head. I work at it, lady, I don't play at it." He offers a similar explanation to Carmen Sternwood when he rejects her advances: "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." This professional ethic causes Marlowe to pursue his employer's interests even against that employer's instructions--in this case, investigating the disappearance of Rusty Regan. 

    The basis of Marlowe's professional pride has less to do with a commercial or work ethic than it does with an older, chivalric code. The connection between Marlowe and a knight is made on the first page of the novel, when he stands in the Sternwood hallway and looks up at a stained glass picture of a knight's attempting to rescue an imprisoned lady. The knight is not getting anywhere, and Marlowe speculates than if he lived in the Sternwood house, "I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him." Throughout the novel Marlowe plays the role of knight errant to General Sternwood, questing for justice in loyal service to his lord despite sexual and financial temptation and threats of physical harm. 

    Ultimately, this chivalric code fails. In a corrupt, fallen world, old standards of honor and loyalty no longer function. Marlowe himself recognizes this failure when he ejects Carmen from his apartment. He looks down at the game-board where he has been working on a chess problem and realizes that his last move--with a knight--is wrong: "Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights." Despite this recognition, he continues trying to act according to his code. He has already compromised his standards by participating in the cover up of three murders, but he goes on working for the General and begins looking for Rusty Regan. 

    In the end, Marlowe realizes that in trying to follow his code he has only helped further deception: "I do all this," he tells Vivian Regan, "for twenty-five bucks a day--and maybe just a little to protect what little pride a broken and sick old man has left in his blood, in the thought that his blood is not poison, and that although his two little girls are a trifle wild, as many girls are these days, they are not perverts or killers." Marlowe covers up Regan's murder, rationalizing that death cannot bother Regan now: "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. But the old man didn't have to be." 

    In a way, The Big Sleep functions as a bildungsroman: Marlowe learns about the moral illness of the modern world and his own inability to function within it. He begins the story with his knightly code; it is tested and it fails. His final statements are bitter and desperate--the struggles of a man who has lost his sense of moral order and is reaching out for a source of support.

    Chandler began working on The Big Sleep in the spring of 1938. The writing progressed quickly, taking only three months--a pace he would never again be able to match. The plot is drawn from two of his short stories, "Killer in the Rain" and "The Curtain" and incorporates small pieces of "Finger Man." Although he called the process "cannibalization," Chandler did not cut and paste passages but rather rewrote entire scenes, in the process tightening his prose and enriching his descriptions. 

    The improvement can be seen comparing the opening paragraphs of the novel's Chapter 3 with the original version in "The Curtain", both of which describe Vivian Regan/O'Mara's bedroom:

      from "The Curtain" 
        The room had a white carpet from wall to wall. Ivory drapes of immense height lay tumbled casually on the white carpet inside many windows. The windows stared toward the dark foothills, and the air beyond the glass was dark too. It hadn't started to rain yet, but there was a feeling of pressure in the atmosphere. 

      from The Big Sleep

        The room was too big, the ceiling was too high, the doors were too tall, and the white carpet that went from wall to wall looked like a fresh fall of snow at Lake Arrowhead. There were full-length mirrors and crystal doodads all over the place. The ivory furniture had chromium on it, and the enormous ivory drapes lay tumbled on the white carpet a yard from the window. The white made the ivory look dirty and the ivory made the white look bled out. The windows stared toward the darkening foothills. It was going to rain soon. There was pressure in the air already. 
    The second version pays closer attention to specific details, and it illustrates how Chandler's style had developed. The paragraph from "The Curtain" is objective, giving the facts of how the room looked and the air felt--a style that shows Chandler's debt to Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway. In The Big Sleep version of the paragraph, though, this obective viewpoint has softened somewhat, allowing the narrator's judgements to color the description. Note, for example, the repetition in "too big . . . too high . . . too tall" and loaded words such as "doodads." Marlowe views Vivian Regan's room as overly lavish and decorated to the point of seeming decadent and stripped of life. This viewpoint is expressed not didactically but through carefully-controlled description. It shows Chandler's style at its maturity.

Publication & Reception 
    The Big Sleep was published in the United States on February 6, 1939 by Alfred A. Knopf, with a first printing of 5000 copies. Knopf promoted the book with a series of advertisements and review copies that linked Chandler with Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, two successful hard-boiled novelists also published by Knopf. The same connection was made on the dust jacket flaps:

      Not since Dashiell Hammett appeared has there been a murder mystery story with the power, pace, and terrifying atmosphere of this one. And like Hammett's this is more than a "murder mystery": it is a novel of crime and character, written with uncommon skill in a tight, tense style which is irresistible.
    Knopf purchased an advertisement for the novel on the front cover of Publisher's Weekly, an unusual sign of confidence for a detective author's first novel. Chandler sold the British rights to The Big Sleep to Hamish Hamilton, and the first English edition appeared in March 1939. 

    Reviewers in both England and the United States picked up on the hardboiled connections and reviewed Chandler as the latest member of a familiar group of detective writers. As would be the case for Chandler's next three books, The Big Sleep was grouped with other mystery novels in brief specialty review columns. The anonymous Time reviewer, for instance, discussed the book and four others under the heading "February Mysteries" and gave Chandler a single sentence: "Detective Marlowe is plunged into a mess of murderers, thugs, and psychopaths who make the characters of Dashiell Hammett and James Cain look like something out of Godey's Lady's Book." Isaac Anderson, the regular mystery critic for the New York Times Book Review, also focused on the hard-edged, sordid tone of Chandler's novel:

      Most of the characters in this story are tough, many are nasty and some of them are both. Philip Marlowe, the private detective who is both the narrator and the chief character, is hard; he has to be to cope with the slimy racketeers who are preying on the Sternwood family.

    Perhaps the most extreme case of generic reviewing was that of the Saturday Review of Literature, which printed a grid-format called "The Criminal Record." Each book was given three boxes in the grid: "Crime, Place, Sleuth," a one sentence plot summary; "Summing Up," a vague impression of the overall story; and "Verdict," a one-word judgment. The "Verdict" for The Big Sleep was simply, "Hammettic." 

    In England The Big Sleep was also lumped into columns with other mystery novels and reviewed as a piece of category fiction. These brief English notices emphasize the toughness of Chandler's stories and clearly connected it with the American hard-boiled style. Nicolas Blake of The Spectator reviewed the novel and eleven other mysteries in a column entitled "The Big Shots": 

      The Big Sleep, as its title suggests, is American and very tough after the Thin Man fashion. Almost everyone in the book, except for the detective, is either a crook or wonderfully decadent, and the author spares us no blushes to point out just how decadent they are. "We're all grifters," says one of them. The action is tightly knit and fast-moving, however, and there is some charming dialogue.

    Blake's comments on the novel give a distorted view of the hard-boiled detective story. Hammett's The Thin Man, though written in the hard-boiled style, is hardly a "tough" story, particularly when compared to his earlier novels Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon or to Carroll John Daly's Race Williams stories. Chandler's novel does feature crooks and morally-corrupt characters, but they are balanced by Marlowe, Bernie Ohls, and General Sternwood--all of whom possess a strong sense of justice and propriety. Blake's comments reveal the extent to which the plot and subject matter of Chandler's first novel determined its initial reception. Chandler's literary reputation would first develop in England, but the British reviews of his first novel treated him as no more of a writer of serious fiction than did the American reviews. 

    Although Chandler did not achieve immediate recognition as a literary author, The Big Sleep was a success. The first American printing of 5,000 copies sold out quickly, and a second printing was required before the official publication date. Sales were good in England as well, with Hamish Hamilton releasing a second printing of the book within a month of its first publication. These figures hardly made him a best-seller, but in the mystery market of the 1930s and 1940s only a hand full of books sold more than 5,000 copies. Alfred A. Knopf was very pleased with the performance of the The Big Sleep and offered Chandler a contract for his next novel at a 20 per cent royalty for the first 5000 copies and 25 per cent afterwards. (The standard contract of the day began with a ten percent royalty, with an escalator to fifteen percent). 

    The Big Sleep was first published in paperback by Avon Books in 1943.