- The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler’s first in a series of novels about a private detective named Philip Marlowe.
- The book has been adapted for film twice: The first adaptation was in 1946 and starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The second adaptation—which wasn’t as well-received as the first—was in 1978 and starred Robert Mitchum and Jimmy Stewart.
- The Big Lebowski, a Coen Brothers film, is loosely based on The Big Sleep.
- According to some of Chandler’s letters published in Atlantic Monthly, Chandler was surprised to realize he never explained the murder of Owen Taylor—and, in fact, didn’t know who the killer was.
- In addition to The Big Sleep, Chandler wrote six other novels that featured Philip Marlowe: Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Playback.
“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.”
Think about my last three books. Lord of the Flies is an apocalyptic-feeling island adventure about a group of kids-turned-barbarians. Gone With The Wind is a Civil War-era romance, set in the deep south, about a elitist socialite who can’t get over herself. And, my latest book, The Big Sleep, is gritty private detective story set in 1930s Los Angeles. This type of reading never gets old because the plots are always so unique.
The Big Sleep is one of those novels that needs to be read a couple of times. While reading, I always had the feeling that I was missing something—maybe a plot connection, a reference, or something like that.
Philip Marlowe is the star. He’s a loner private detective who is hired by a rich general to investigate a “rare book” collector who is blackmailing the general. Turns out, the general’s two scandalous daughters are involved—and the plot twists and turns to reveal much more than just blackmail.
Everything hinges on Vivian—the older of the general’s missing daughters—whose husband has disappeared. Although Marlowe has been hired to investigate the blackmail—which involves pictures (if you know what I mean) of the general’s youngest daughter, Carmen—everything keeps leading back to the disappearance of the husband, Rusty Regan.
The book redefined the entire private detective genre of writing. I kept imagining scenes from L.A. Confidential while I was reading it. Sherlock Holmes this is not. Marlowe himself even discusses this with General Sternwood in Chapter 30:
I’m not Sherlock Holmes or Philo Vance. I don’t expect to go over ground the police have covered and pick up a broken pen point and build a case from it. If you think there is anybody in the detective business making a living doing that sort of thing, you don’t know much about cops.
Chandler is an incredible writer. He says a lot while only saying a little. In other words, his prose is descriptive and beautiful while staying concise and to the point. I love these lines from early in the book, the first time Marlowe meets Vivian Regan: “I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs. Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble… Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.”
His prose has such a good detail and rhythm—something that is often overlooked when it comes to writing. The sentences pop and the structure of each one is varied. The Big Sleep is a beautiful read.
As I mentioned, the plot has its fair share of twists and turns, so it does border on complex. But, if you stay with it, the book is definitely worth the time. After my 101 reads are complete, this is one that I may revisit—just to see what I missed the first time.
The Meaning: “The Big Sleep” simply means death. The only time the phrase is mentioned is in the last chapter. You can find the exact quote in the “Memorable Line” section below.
Highlights: I love Chandler’s writing style. It’s a simple style that describes a complex story. Every word seems to have a purpose. Some writers overwrite; Chandler doesn’t.
Lowlights: This isn’t really a lowlight on the part of the book, but, as I’ve mentioned, you’ve got to stay with the plot and focus. If you daydream, you’re going to miss something.
Memorable Line: “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. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.” - Philip Marlowe
Final Thoughts: Read it. If you have any inclination toward mysteries, crime dramas, or private detective dramas, then you’ll enjoy The Big Sleep. With this novel, Chandler took these genres in a creative direction and built an entire series based on one intriguing character, Philip Marlowe.
Up Next: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy