59 pages 1 hour read

Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1939

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Published in 1939, The Big Sleep by novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler is a murder mystery widely regarded as one of the greatest hard-boiled detective stories of the 20th century. The work introduces Philip Marlowe, a fictional private eye with a jaundiced view of humanity but a strong sense of fairness, who appears in seven other novels by Chandler. Hired by a super-rich family to negotiate with a blackmailer, Marlowe encounters murder, mayhem, and a terrible secret hidden by the family itself.

Chandler’s atmospheric style and strong character depictions, both seminal in defining the noir genre, have drawn high praise as well as controversy. The Big Sleep appears on multiple 100-best-book lists, including that of Time magazine. It has been filmed twice, and adapted for TV, stage, and radio. A pair of additional Marlowe adventures were authorized by Chandler’s estate and completed by bestselling crime novelist Robert B. Parker.

This guide refers to the 2020 Aegitas ebook edition of the novel. Pagination may vary greatly compared to physical editions.

Content Warning: The work contains homophobic, sexist, and racist comments that are in keeping with its author’s bigoted views. The novel also describes an epileptic seizure and death by suicide, as well as graphic descriptions of homicide victims, shootings, and fistfights.

Plot Summary

Detective Philip Marlowe visits the Hollywood Hills estate of the aging, wealthy oil magnate General Sternwood. The general asks Marlowe to deal with Arthur Geiger, a blackmailer who owns the gambling IOUs of Sternwood’s wild daughter Carmen. The general has already had to pay off someone named Joe Brody to leave Carmen alone. Marlowe agrees. While he is at the estate, Carmen and her sister Vivian flirt boldly with him. Vivian tries to get Marlowe to reveal his business with her father—she assumes he’s been hired to find her missing husband, Rusty Regan, an ex-bootlegger—but Marlowe refuses to tell them.

Marlowe tracks down Geiger at a Hollywood store that rents illegal pornographic books to wealthy customers. He stakes out Geiger’s hillside home and sees Carmen go in. Hearing gunshots, Marlowe enters and finds Geiger lying dead, while Carmen, drugged and naked, sits in a chair in front of a camera with a spent flash bulb. The camera’s photographic plate is missing.

Marlowe pockets a notebook of Geiger’s, gets Carmen dressed and back into her car, and drives her to the Sternwood compound. The butler and a maid take care of Carmen. Marlowe returns to Geiger’s house, but the body is gone.

The next day, Marlowe and the DA’s chief investigator, Bernie Ohls, drive out to the beach, where one of Sternwood’s cars has been pulled from the water. Inside is the family chauffeur, dead. Back in Hollywood, Marlowe observes a truck loading up boxes of books from Geiger’s shop. He follows the truck to an apartment building; one tenant is Joe Brody.

Vivian visits Marlowe at his office. She shows the detective a photo she received that morning of her sister in the nude. The blackmailers want a lot of money or Carmen will go to jail. Marlowe returns to Geiger’s house, where he finds Carmen searching for the original photo. Casino manager Eddie Mars, who owns the house, shows up looking for Geiger. He sends Carmen away, and then threatens Marlowe, who says Geiger was probably killed for his porn business. Marlowe won’t say more, so Mars kicks him out.

Marlowe goes to Joe Brody’s place. He manages to convince Brody and his girlfriend, Geiger’s store clerk Agnes, that blackmailing Carmen could get Brody the death penalty for Geiger’s murder. Carmen shows up and mayhem ensues, but Marlowe manages to get everyone’s weapon and the photo. After Carmen leaves, the doorbell rings. Brody answers it and is shot dead. Marlowe chases the killer and apprehends Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s young male assistant and live-in lover.

They drive to Geiger’s house, where Marlowe discovers Geiger’s body lying in state in Lundgren’s room. Marlowe calls Ohls, who arrives and arrests Lundgren. At the home of the DA, Marlowe brings everyone up to date, including Police Captain Cronjager, in whose precinct the murders took place. They agree to keep the Geiger and Sternwood scandals out of the newspapers, since a grand jury would reveal that the police were letting Geiger’s porn shop stay in business.

Wishing to tie up loose ends, Marlowe visits Captain Gregory at the Missing Persons Bureau. Gregory informs Marlowe that, four days after Rusty Regan disappeared, his car was found at the hotel where Eddie Mars’s wife was staying. Now her car is missing. As Marlowe drives back to Hollywood, he notices a gray sedan tailing him.

Marlowe drives out to Mars’s casino. Mars didn’t kill Regan and doesn’t know where he went. Mars seems surprised and worried to hear that Marlowe was tailed that day.

At the casino, Vivian is placing huge roulette bets. She leaves a big winner. On her way out, one of Mars’s lieutenants tries to rob her, but Marlowe stops him. Vivian’s date is drunk, so Marlowe offers her a ride. On the way back, Vivian asks to see the ocean. Marlowe parks at the beach and they start kissing. He interrupts to ask what Mars has on her. Vivian pulls away angrily and insists he drive her straight home.

At his apartment, Marlowe finds Carmen in his bed, naked and giggling. Marlowe asks her to leave, but she refuses, so he threatens to throw her out. Angry and pouting, Carmen dresses and departs.

The next morning, Marlowe catches the man tailing him—Harry Jones. Jones offers to give him information about Regan if Marlowe will give porn-shop clerk Agnes money so she can get out of town. Marlowe accepts. That night, he goes to meet Jones and overhears one of Mars’s henchmen, Lash Canino, kill Jones. Marlowe learns from Agnes that Mars’s wife, Mona, is hiding in a house 40 miles east of LA. Mars wants it to look like Regan is still alive and ran off with Mona.

Marlowe drives to the house, where Mona is holed up in a rainstorm. Canino is there and knocks Marlowe out. When Marlowe awakens, shackled, he talks Mona into setting him free. Marlowe retrieves a gun from his car, calls Canino out, and kills Canino in an exchange of gunfire. He and Mona drive to DA Wilde’s house, where Marlowe gives his report. Eddie Mars appears and collects his wife. Wilde scolds Marlowe for taking matters into his own hands, but no charges are filed.

Marlowe visits General Sternwood, who offers him a large sum of money to find Regan. When Marlowe returns Carmen’s gun to her, she asks him to teach her how to shoot, so he drives with her to the old Sternwood oil derricks. There, Carmen tries to shoot him for throwing her out of his bed, but Marlowe has pre-loaded her gun with blanks. Carmen has an epileptic seizure.

Marlowe tells Vivian that Regan must have rejected Carmen’s advances, and that Carmen played the same shooting-lesson trick on Regan and killed him. Vivian admits that she paid off Eddie Mars to dispose of Regan’s body. She agrees to place Carmen in an institution, and Marlowe agrees not to call the police.

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By Raymond Chandler

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