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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 millionaire. 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.
  • Always Murder: It starts out as a fairly simple blackmail case, but it's only a few chapters before the first corpse turns up. And, as it turns out, the entire plot traces back to the earlier murder of Rusty Regan.
  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • Who killed the Sternwoods' chauffeur, Owen Taylor? Brody? Eddie Mars? Suicide? An accident due to his suffering a concussion? Raymond Chandler admitted he had no idea.
    • Did Owen Taylor actually kill Geiger? The revelations at the end of the book make it entirely possible, perhaps even more likely, that Carmen did it.
  • Bait-and-Switch: This is how Marlowe beats Canino in their gunfight. Canino assumes Marlowe faked his death scream and sends Mona, the hostage, to find Marlowe's "corpse". Fortunately, Mona lies about seeing Marlowe inside the car, and Canino blind-fires into it, letting Marlowe ambush Canino from a different hiding place.
  • 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, it's not the sole detail that leads Marlowe to conclude it was cyanide; he also mentions the victim's skin color and the fact that the victim vomited.
  • Bluff the Impostor: At Geiger's bookstore, Marlowe asks Agnes, then the desk clerk, 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, cluing him in that Geiger's business isn't what it seems.
  • Book Ends:
    • 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.
    • The Rusty Regan arc begins and ends with Marlowe meeting with Vivian in her white-and-ivory boudoir.
  • Bury Your Gays: The first murder victim, Arthur Geiger, is a Depraved Homosexual. His lover doesn't die, but does end up in prison after killing the person he incorrectly believed had murdered Geiger.
  • 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.
  • Chandler's Law: Being written by the Trope Namer this naturally occurs in spades, with several scenes kicking into overdrive by the appearance of someone holding a gun.
  • Character Tics: Carmen sucks her thumb, despite being about 20 years old, showing that she's got some screws loose.
  • 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 recurring motif in the story.
  • Conversation Casualty: Marlowe overhears a conversation between Harry Jones, an informant, and Canino, a gangster. The conversation seems to proceed well, and Canino suggests they share a drink — which he uses as an opportunity to poison Harry.
  • 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:
    Ohls: 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 awry. Marlowe and the cops see them as disgusting perverts.
  • Damsel in Distress: Mona Mars becomes this in the climax. She is ostensibly in hiding to help with a cover-up of a murder, but Marlowe helps her realize that Vincent Canino and Eddie Mars will kill her if she tries to leave. Sadly, Marlowe assumes the worst when he never sees her again after she helps him kill Canino.
  • Distressed Dude: In the climax of the book, Marlowe is knocked out by Vincent Canino and tied up in a safehouse. He needs the help of Mona Mars, also held captive, to escape before Canino comes back to interrogate and murder him.
  • The Dragon: Vincent Canino is this to Eddie Mars, doing any dirty work the boss orders including murder and kidnapping.
  • Dumb Blonde: Carmen. In fact, she acts so weirdly childlike that she might be invokedmildly 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.
  • Faking the Dead: Marlowe does this in his gunfight with Canino, faking a death scream after being shot at in his dark car. Notably, Canino doesn't buy it. He has Mona go confirm that Marlowe is dead, and then shoots a few more times at the body for good measure. Fortunately, Mona lies about seeing Marlowe in the car, leading to Canino being ambushed and killed.
  • 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 other 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 slaps Carmen's face when he finds her drugged in Geiger's house to sober her up enough to cooperate with getting dressed.
  • Godiva Hair: The woman tied to the tree in the stained glass window is nude but for some "very long and convenient" hair.
  • Guys are Slobs: Marlowe's office and home are pretty humble and shabby.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Philip Marlowe in his first novel codifies the flowery Private Eye Monologue and chivalrous snark the noir genre would become known for.
  • Honor Among Thieves: Eddie Mars, described as a "soldier" and "horseman", is a known gangster but abides by a certain code, giving Vivian and Marlowe considerable leeway to pay him his money and stay out of his business, respectively. His dragon Canino has no such qualms, however, and in giving Canino free rein to deal with Marlowe, Harry Jones and Agnes, and Mars' "missing" wife Mona, he shows his honor and benevolence to be more of a convenient front, preserving his image and his own peace of mind.
  • The Hyena: Carmen giggles all the time. When she giggles after Marlowe tells her about him finding her naked and drugged in Geiger's house, it's his first real 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, partly 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 Carmen Sternwood's gun with blanks before returning it, to keep her from misusing it. This pays off immediately when Carmen tries to lure him to a secluded place and shoot him for refusing to sleep with her.
  • I Was Never Here: After Marlowe finds Carmen in a compromising position and drives her home in her car, the Sternwoods' butler offers to call him a taxi. Marlowe replies that he doesn't need one, because "I'm not even here. You're seeing things" — a roundabout way of promising that he's willing to pretend it never happened.
  • The Jeeves: The General has a very polite, proper and capable butler who still manages to make his opinions known underneath the courtesy.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Eddie Mars is trying to pull one off, covering up Carmen's murder of Rusty Regan. He sends his wife Mona to hide in a distant safehouse, and planting evidence to convince the cops that Rusty and Mona ran off together to escape their unhappy marriages. It is established however that the general public doesn't buy it and the whole thing may be a cover for a Murder the Hypotenuse situation but his actual objective is to stall the discovery of the murder so he can blackmail Vivian out of her inheritance.
    • A lesser scope one is right at the beginning, again by Eddie Mars kicks off the plot: He sends Geiger to entrap and get blackmail material from Carmen, and try to extort her father on vague threats. The blackmail is just a test to see if he can blackmail General Sternwood directly, rather than waiting for his death and Vivian's inheritance
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Eddie Mars gets away with all of his involvement in blackmail, murder, and covering up for murder. The only justice he gets is losing his The Dragon, Canino, and possibly being unable to blackmail Mrs. Regan anymore.
    • 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.
  • Leg Focus: 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."
  • Little Black Dress: Agnes is wearing one when Marlowe first meets her in Geiger's bookstore.
  • Love at First Sight: Philip falls for Mona Mars, unlike the movie where its Mrs. Regan, but Did Not Get the Girl.
  • 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 one 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."
  • 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 is already dead when the story starts, but is connected one way or another with just about everything that happens.
  • 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 is very frank about his daughters' outlandish behaviors and reputations, "because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy."
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Marlowe offers to return the money when he thinks the case hasn't been closed to his satisfaction.
  • Shown Their Work: Marlowe knows that a blank cartridge fired at close range is still dangerous.
  • Skeleton Key Card: In Marlowe's wallet, the pocket for his driver's license has a viewing window with a rigid strip of celluloid covering it. At one point, he slips the celluloid out and jimmies a lock open with it, accompanied by narration suggesting that it's not the first time he's used it for that purpose.
  • Tap on the Head: Vincent Canino and the auto-mechanic do this to Marlowe when he comes to investigate the area, using an inner tube to bind Marlowe before punching him with a roll of nickels. He wakes up handcuffed and tied to a chair.
  • Technically a Smile: The second time Marlowe visits Geiger's bookstore, Agnes the sales clerk is having trouble maintaining her customer service face because Geiger has been murdered but the store staff are trying to keep wraps on it. Marlowe says of her expression: "It was a grimace. She just thought it was a smile."
  • 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.
  • Weather Report Opening: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." The fact that it's mid October is relevant to the timeline of events, and the rain shows up later as an example of Empathic Environment.
  • Yandere: Carmen Sternwood. She killed Rusty Regan and tries to kill Marlowe for refusing her advances.