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Literature / The Big Sleep

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"What 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."

The Big Sleep is the 1939 novel that introduced Raymond Chandler's Hardboiled Detective character Philip Marlowe to the reading public.

The convoluted plot follows the investigation by Marlowe into the gambling debts of young dilettante Carmen Sternwood at the behest of her father, an old, wheelchair-bound millionnaire. However, Carmen's older sister, Vivian Regan, claims that the investigation is really about finding what happened to her husband Terrence "Rusty" Regan, who has mysteriously disappeared.

The 1946 film adaptation, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, has its own page.

There was also a 1978 remake of the film starring Robert Mitchum and it was Darker and Edgier with more violence and nudity.


The novel contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Marlowe is a heavy drinker and frequently takes swigs of booze to revive himself.
  • Affably Evil: Eddie Mars.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between Marlowe and Vivian.
  • Bitter Almonds: A side character is poisoned with cyanide in whisky and dies in the span of a single page. Notably, although the smell is noted, Marlowe calls the cyanide not because of the smell but because the victim vomited.
  • Bluff the Impostor: At Geiger's bookstore, Marlowe asks Agnes a trick question about rare books (asking for an edition of Ben-Hur with a misprint that doesn't exist), and she falls for it, telling him that Geiger's business isn't what it seems.
  • Bookends:
    • Marlowe's first and last encounters with Carmen involve her slumping into his arms: the first time is a flirtatious, spontaneous trust fall, and the last is as she has a seizure from the shock of seeing that her plan to kill him failed.
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    • The Rusty Regan arc begins and ends with Marlowe meeting with Vivian in her white-and-ivory boudoir.
  • Camp Gay: Although we don't see many of Geiger's mannerisms, his house leans toward this, with loud and (in Marlowe's opinion) tacky décor and a feminine-looking bedroom, including a flounced bedspread.
  • Chess Motifs: Marlowe keeps a chessboard in his apartment, with problems on it to help focus his mind. He notes at one point that the current problem on the board "wasn't a game for knights". Knights in general are a reoccurring motif in the story.
  • Convulsive Seizures: Averted. Carmen has a seizure in the penultimate scene, but she doesn't violently convulse; it seems the main way Marlowe can tell it was one was because she wet herself.
  • Crapsack World: Hoo, boy. Just a taste - when Marlowe casually suggests that Bernie Ohls try cracking down on L.A.'s gambling dens, this is Ohls' response:
    "With the syndicate we got in this country? Be your age, Marlowe."
  • Deadpan Snarker: Everyone.
  • Depraved Homosexual: The gay Geiger is a pornographer and blackmailer. Part of the plot involves a homosexual relationship gone afoul. Marlowe and the cops see them as disgusting perverts.
  • Dumb Blonde: Carmen. In fact, she acts so weirdly childlike that she might be mildly mentally handicapped Marlowe is certainly of the opinion that she ought to be placed in a mental institution at the end of the novel.
  • Empathic Environment: Used frequently in the novel. It's always raining.
  • Expy: Philip Marlowe bears a striking resemblance to a detective named Carmady who featured in the short stories Chandler had written for Black Mask magazine. Chandler also recycled incidents from three of those stories into this novel.
  • Femme Fatale: Vivian Regan. Eventually, it's revealed that she's not really dangerous. She's just trying to protect her father from finding out that his daughter is a murderer and his treasured son-in-law is dead.
  • Fille Fatale: Carmen Sternwood, but in personality only. She's actually about 20 years old. She giggles a lot and has a tendency to suck her thumb in a suggestive manner while flirting with Marlowe.
  • Foreshadowing: When Marlowe first arrives at the Sternwoods' house, he sees a stained glass window depicting a knight rescuing a naked woman tied to a tree. A few chapters later, he finds Carmen naked and drugged in Geiger's house, dresses her, and gets her back to her home safely.
  • Friend on the Force: Bernie Ohls, the D.A.'s chief investigator, is one of the few cops that Marlowe seems to be on okay terms with.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Marlowe does this to Carmen when he finds her drugged in Geiger's house to sober her up enough to cooperate with getting dressed.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Marlowe.
  • Godiva Hair: The woman tied to the tree in the stained glass window is nude but for "convenient" hair.
  • Guys Are Slobs: Marlowe's office and home are pretty humble and shabby.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Philip Marlowe.
  • The Hyena: Carmen giggles all the time. When she giggles after being told about being found naked and drugged in Geiger's house, it's Marlowe's first clue that there's something not quite right about her.
  • Icy Blue Eyes: Marlowe frequently notes that the butler's cold blue eyes have a penetrating quality.
  • Ignore the Fanservice: Carmen Sternwood turns up naked in Philip Marlowe's bed and tries to seduce him. He admits that his blood is as warm as the next guy's, but staunchly refuses, in part because she's a factor in his investigation, and partly because of the violation he feels in her breaking into his home.
  • Informed Attractiveness:
    • Various characters tell Marlowe that he's tall and handsome.
    • Carmen likes to request confirmation on how cute she is.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Toward the end of the novel, Marlowe fills his gun with blanks before he takes Carmen Sternwood out to practice target shooting, knowing that Carmen is likely to kill him as soon as his guard's down.
  • The Jeeves: The General has a very polite, proper and capable butler who still manages to make his opinions known underneath the courtesy.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Nothing particularly bad happens to Eddie Mars.
    • Carmen Sternwood's only punishment for murder will be going to a mental hospital, though it's only to spare her father the heartbreak.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Marlowe to a tee, basically. Several parts in the novel even have him implicitly compare himself to a knight.
  • Little Black Dress: Agnes is wearing one when Marlowe first meets her in Geiger's bookstore.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: As to be expected from a Trope Codifier for the hard-boiled P.I. novel. The story begins with Marlowe trying to track down a blackmailer and promptly drags him into multiple murder cases tangentially related to one another.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter:
    • A Running Gag after a suspect gets caught. His only words from then on are shown as "Go —— yourself." Marlowe will occasionally narrate that the kid said "his three favorite words" and refers to him as "he of the limited vocabulary." When Marlowe asks a cop if the kid said anything while he was away, the cop quips, "He made a suggestion. I'm letting it ride."
    • When Marlowe brushes off Carmen coming on to him (by turning up naked in his bed) and tells her to Please Put Some Clothes On, the narrative says, "She called me a filthy name."
  • Never Suicide: Police are initially inclined to treat one of the deaths as a suicide, but a couple of details don't add up. It probably was suicide after all — all the "don't add up" details are subsequently accounted for — but the book never explicitly states who did it, and when Chandler was asked about it in later years he couldn't remember what he'd intended.
  • Not Good with Rejection: The presumptive motive for Carmen's murder of Rusty Regan and her attempt to kill Marlowe was inability to cope with their turning her down sexually.
  • Patchwork Story: Like most of the early Marlowe novels, it reuses and expands text from some of Chandler's earlier pulp shorts - in this case "Killer In The Rain" (most of the underground bookshop/photoshoot scenes), "The Curtain" (the overall setup of a rich old general searching for his adopted son, as well as the killer being said general's own blood-relation.), and "Finger Man" (the descriptions of Eddie Mars' gambling den).
  • Percussive Therapy: After Marlowe gets Carmen, who had broken into his apartment and gotten into his bed naked, out of his room, he "tears the bed to pieces savagely."
  • Please Put Some Clothes On: Marlowe has to do this twice to Carmen.
  • Posthumous Character: Rusty Regan.
  • Pretty in Mink: Vivian has a gray fur coat, and pajamas trimmed with white fur.
  • Private Detective: Marlowe, because he wants to make an honest living according to his own code of morality.
  • Private Eye Monologue: They don't call the style "Chandleresque" for nothing.
  • Red Right Hand: Marlowe notes Carmen's small, sharp teeth whenever she starts getting crazy.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: General Sternwood.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Marlowe offers to return the money when he thinks the case hasn't been closed to his satisfaction.
  • She's Got Legs: Marlowe spends quite a while talking about Vivian's legs—even to her face:
    "They're very swell legs and it's a pleasure to make their acquaintance."
  • Shown Their Work: Marlowe knows that a blank cartridge fired at close range is still dangerous.
  • Title Drop: Near the end, in reference to Mr. Sternwood mercifully dying without knowing that one of his few friends was murdered.
  • Trespassing to Talk: In one of the most famous passages of the book, Carmen Sternwood combines this with Ready for Lovemaking.
  • Yandere: Carmen Sternwood. She killed Rusty Regan and tries to kill Marlow for refusing her advances.


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