History: This book was published in 1939, the first in his acclaimed series about detective Philip Marlow. One of the murders is left unexplained. Owen Taylor is found murdered in a car that has been pushed into the bay. Chandler was shocked to find later that he didn't know who the killer was
Plot: Private investigator Philip Marlowe is called to the sprawling mansion of the elderly and paraplegic General Sternwood. The date is mid-October 1936 (we know this from a reference in chapter 11 to a Dionne Quintuplets advertising calendar from that year gracing Marlowe's office). General Sternwood asks Marlowe to deal with a blackmailer named Arthur Gwynn Geiger, apparently a purveyor of rare books. Geiger is involved with the General's nymphomaniac daughter Carmen, and makes her sign promissory notes. Marlowe tells the general that he will persuade Geiger to stop. Before Marlowe leaves, Vivian, the General's other daughter, queries Marlowe about the nature of his visit. She is under the impression that he is being hired to look for Terence "Rusty" Regan (her husband), who had disappeared about a month before.
Marlowe visits Geiger's bookshop, where he discovers that the assistant, Agnes, knows absolutely nothing about rare books. While he is waiting to talk with Geiger, a customer visits the back room of the store and leaves with a book. After following him and taking the book, Marlowe deduces that Geiger loans pornography, and then blackmails his customers. Marlowe goes back to the store to see Geiger leaving, and follows him to his house, where he waits outside. After some time, he hears gunshots and a woman's scream. He breaks his way into the house and finds Geiger dead on the floor in front of a camera. Carmen is posing naked and drugged with "ether and something else, possibly laudanum". He takes Carmen home, but doesn't call the police. When he returns to the scene, he discovers that the body has been removed.
The next morning he is telephoned by Bernie Ohls, a policeman, who informs him that the Sternwoods' chauffeur, Owen Taylor, has been found dead in the harbor. He apparently drove off the pier and drowned, but the doctor suspects the cause of death could be a blow to the back of the head. Marlowe visits the bookstore again, and finds that the books are being relocated to the premises of Joe Brody, a former lover of Carmen who had been paid by General Sternwood to leave her alone. Marlowe then goes to his office, and finds Vivian waiting for him. She informs him that an anonymous woman is trying to extort her for the nude photos of Carmen. Visiting the crime scene a third time, Marlowe finds Carmen (who has forgotten the events of the previous evening) looking for the pictures. They are interrupted by Eddie Mars, a gangster who runs a local casino. He claims to be Geiger's landlord, looking for the rent.
Marlowe visits Joe Brody, whom he believes has the compromising photos of Carmen. Brody, along with Agnes, is trying to take over Geiger's business, including the blackmail. Brody admits to seeing Owen Taylor drive off the pier, but denies being the murderer. Marlowe eventually persuades Brody to give the photos to him, but Carmen arrives with a gun, extremely agitated. She shoots at Brody but misses him. Marlowe confiscates the gun and tells her to go home to her sister. Another caller knocks at the door and asks for Brody. Brody goes to the door but is shot dead before he can open it. Marlowe runs after the caller, captures him, and recognizes him as the other assistant from Geiger's store. The young man identifies himself as Carol Lundgren, and Marlowe deduces that he's Geiger's homosexual lover who shot Brody in revenge, mistakenly believing him to have murdered Geiger. Lundgren had moved Geiger's body into the garage and later to another room and laid it out with black candles. Marlowe drives to the district attorney's house and hands Lundgren over to Bernie Ohls.
Marlowe visits the missing persons bureau and discovers that Regan apparently ran away with Mona Mars, Eddie Mars's wife. Eddie Mars calls Marlowe to his club, where Mars tries to bribe him to stop following the case. Marlowe sees Vivian winning a large amount of money in roulette. He later realizes that the win is an act to make him believe that Mars is not involved with Vivian. He also deduces that Mars knows something that could be very damaging to the Sternwoods, and is blackmailing her. Marlowe asks Mars about the car following him, and Mars denies knowing about it. When Vivian leaves the casino with a large amount of money, Marlowe breaks up an apparent mugging of Vivian and drives her to a coffee shop and then to the beach, where she tries to seduce him. He refuses her advances and takes her home. When he finally returns home himself, Carmen is in his bed, nude. He throws her out in a rage.
Marlowe's tail turns out to be a man named Harry Jones who is now working with Agnes. After Marlowe outwits him and confronts Jones about following him, Jones offers to sell some information about Mona Mars to him. Marlowe agrees, and is told that she is being held at a secret location by Eddie Mars's hitman, Canino. He also learns that she never ran off with Regan, and is in hiding so that people will not think Eddie Mars killed Regan. Jones asks Marlowe to meet him at his office that night with two hundred dollars with the promise that Agnes will reveal the location of Mona Mars. Marlowe visits Sternwood and is paid $500 for his work. When Marlowe arrives to meet Jones, he hears Canino talking to Jones through a doorway. Marlowe sneaks in through another entrance and hears Canino coerce Jones to tell him where Agnes is staying. Jones lies to him and Canino suggests they have a drink to celebrate Jones's common sense. Canino poisons the drink with cyanide which kills Harry. As Marlowe examines Harry's body for a clue as to Agnes's true location, the phone rings and Agnes agrees to meet with him. She gives him Mona's location in exchange for the $200.
On the way to the safe house, Marlowe purposefully flattens his tire so he can get into the mechanic's shop and then make his way to the safe house. He recognizes Canino, who is in the shop with the mechanic and who does not initially recognize Marlowe. The mechanic knocks Marlowe unconscious. He comes to in the house where Mona is staying. When he wakes, he sees her, and she frees him.
Canino comes back and a gunfight ensues. Canino is killed and Marlowe goes to the police, who do not press charges. Marlowe visits General Sternwood the next day, who is initially upset that Marlowe tried to find Rusty Regan, which he had not been asked to do. On the way out, Marlowe returns the gun to Carmen and she asks Marlowe to teach her how to shoot. Carmen leads Marlowe to an abandoned oil field owned by the Sternwoods. He sets up a can on a tire for target practice. As he walks back to her, Carmen shoots at him in a rage, but the gun was filled with blanks by Marlowe. Carmen then has an epileptic fit. Marlowe returns Carmen to the house and visits Vivian and tells her his theory that Carmen killed Regan. Marlowe figures that Regan had thrown Carmen out of his bed, just like Marlowe, causing Carmen to hate him. She asked him to teach her how to shoot, and she shot him dead. Vivian admits that Carmen shot Regan and Vivian asked Eddie Mars to cover it up, but then he blackmailed her. Marlowe promises not to go the police as long as Carmen is institutionalized. The book ends with Marlowe ruminating on his adventures and the grim, sordid human comedy he has been thrust into.
Review: Throughout Chandler's book, The Big Sleep, he describes places so the reader develops a sense of the surroundings and feels like they are right there with Philip Marlowe, the Detective.
For example, when Philip Marlowe entered General Sternwood's mansion, Philip notices the "main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. 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." Chandler continues to describe the rest of the rooms and halls. The use of description makes the scene real. However, if a writer uses several passages to describe something, then it can become boring to readers, and they may discontinue reading.
Chandler uses several characters and describes each character, so readers can become acquainted with their personalities. For example, Chandler describes Carmen, General Sternwood's daughter, in such a way that readers realize she is immature. He does this through General Sternwood's conversation with Marlowe. General Sternwood says, ". . . she would suck her thumb and look coy." This description shows the reader that Carmen is immature because an adult wouldn't suck his or her thumb. General Sternwood also says that "Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies." He describes Vivian, his other daughter, as "spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless." Readers can tell that Vivian is more mature, but is more of an evil person.
Even though Chandler uses a lot of description, the story moves along and readers want to keep reading to find out who committed the crime that Philip Marlowe is trying to solve. However, sometimes it takes more than one time through to figure out the plot.
Opening Line: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain the clearness of the foothills.”
Closing Line: “All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again."
Quotes: "You know what Canino will do? Beat my teeth out and kick me in the stomach for mumbling."
“It’s not his dying. It is what he would be thinking right before he died.”
Rating: Not very good.