Review of The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler Introduces Philip Marlowe

Hired to end a blackmailing scheme, Marlowe is drawn into a world of pornographers, gamblers, and killers-for-hire in Depression Era Los Angeles.

General Sternwood’s problems revolve around his two young, wild daughters. Vivian’s ex-bootlegger husband has disappeared—presumably with another man’s wife—and Carmen’s thrill-seeking has gotten her tangled up with pornographers and blackmailers. Marlowe takes the case to help out the old general, but finds himself in over his head as bodies start piling up and the general’s daughters cause more trouble than he can deal with at any one time.

Literary Detective

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the multiple mysteries. There is the surface scenario of Marlowe trying to put an end to Carmen being blackmailed. While this would be enough for any good detective yarn, there is also the unsolved case of Vivian’s missing husband. Though he is never asked to look into it, most people assume this is the real case Marlowe is investigating and treat him differently because of it. In time Marlowe gets caught up in this case too, though it appears to be barely related to the case involving the blackmailer.

Beyond the plot mysteries is the mystery of Marlowe. Though he is the protagonist and the narrator, his motives and personality remain obscure to the reader and only become clearer over time and often in subtle ways. For instance, when examining a chess puzzle he takes back a move from a knight and thinks “Knights had no meaning in this game” (156). The comment carries through the whole novel as Marlowe acts with surprising decency and tact when the world around him is full of gangsters, ingrates, and conscienceless killers.

Los Angeles City Hall,1931
Los Angeles City Hall,1931

Chandler’s Legacy

On the weak side, the text has several instances of stumbling prose or repetitions of words close together that cannot be dismissed as the narrative voice or as a part of the author’s style. Likewise, since Marlowe and his thoughts are closely guarded even from the reader the text is occasionally required to explain certain events in long expositional dialogues.

Despite these few minor faults Chandler creates an evocative setting of Los Angeles in the early Twentieth Century and its unseemly world of fast money, an obsession with controlling publicity, disillusion and nihilistic youths, and other dark aspects of the American Dream. Marlowe becomes such an interesting character this setting because of his incongruity with it.

Chandler’s iconic characters, his style—terse yet rich in metaphors—and his ear for plausible jargon that fleshes out the characters and their setting have attracted enough admirers to make him a touchstone for other authors writing literary stories involving detectives. Elements Chandler pioneered can be seen in James Crumley’s fiction like The Wrong Case, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and even in The Big Lebowski by Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Marlowe is on the Case

The Big Sleep is an excellent read for both fans of detective stories, newcomers to the genre, or anyone curious about the origins of contemporary mystery novels. Chandler keeps everything fresh and on the move with generally good pacing. This novel marks an excellent start for the careers of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe.


Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. New York: Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1992.

Other Works by Raymond Chandler

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Comments 17 comments

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

It's been awhile since I read this particular novel. It's a good refresher for me. Good analysis.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks dahoglund. I puts some links up to some of your related hubs, too.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I appreciate that.

valeriebelew profile image

valeriebelew 6 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

Sounds like an interesting book. Working these daughter's behaviors into the plot would be interesting. Sounds like a book that would hold your interest. (: v

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

You're right on the money, valeriebelew. I highly recommend this novel, especially to anyone interested hard-boiled detective fiction.

tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco

Thanks for this astute review. Was never completely sure of what was really going on in the movie. Have never read the book ~ now I think I will.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks, tracykarl99. I don't know how the movie compares to the book, but Chandler's novel is a good read.

Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

Nice Hub satomko

I loved the old movie but I guess you can't beat a read of the book.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks for stopping by, Shinkicker.

valbond profile image

valbond 6 years ago from UK

Good review. I like the Marlowe black and white films, and you have to thank Chandler for the original books and in effect contributing to the film noir movement.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

I completely agree, valbond. Thanks for stopping by and adding your insights.

billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

I have read a few of Chandlers books - brilliant mysteries. Great review here I will seek this one out.

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

I have not read this book, though I did see the film. I enjoyed your cogent, concise review. Thank you for this pleasure.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thank you, billyaustindillon. This was the first of Chandler's novels that I read, and it got me hooked.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

James, your comments are always appreciated. Thank you for reading my hubs, and I hope you continue with your own excellent work.

Huntgoddess profile image

Huntgoddess 6 years ago from Midwest U.S.A.

Hey, very nice review. Thanks.

I never understood the movie, but who doesn't love Bogey anyway?

This is very nice, and it's making me realize I need to get cracking on these books. Thanks for the great info.

satomko profile image

satomko 6 years ago from Macon, GA Author

Thanks for reading, huntgoddess. Chandler had a rocky relationship with movie adaptations of his books, but I tend to agree with you. Let me know when you get around to reading the novels.

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