Detailed Synopsis and Commentary
The oft-quoted remark from Raymond Chandler with regard to the Big Sleep that even he himself 'never figured out what was going on' should not be taken too seriously. It comes from a telegram he sent to Howard Hawks, the director of the 1946 film of the book, when requested to provide the identity of Owen Taylor's killer (see the section on Language and Structure), and owes much to Chandler's unwillingness - perhaps out of jealousy - to help out screenwriter William Faulkner. However, the plot of the Big Sleep is notoriously convoluted, and demands a certain amount of attention from the reader. The effect of leaving the reader at times confused is no doubt intentional. Chandler is treating us to the experience of a detective attempting to plough through a mass of facts to get a handle on the truth that remains obscure throughout. However, unlike some other mystery writers, Chandler does provide the reader with enough information to make the necessary connections when Marlowe finally uncovers the full picture. After all, the first person narrative ensures that we are in possession of all the information Marlowe has - we are with him in every waking moment throughout the five days over which the story takes place. Chandler is also making a conscious effort to maintain a certain verisimilitude about proceedings: unlike the convenient three-act structure and neat conclusions of screenplays that Chandler was later to work on, life tends to be complicated and leaves loose ends. He acknowledges as much in the book itself, as Marlowe considers the truth (or otherwise) of an explanation given to him: "It seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact."
Because of the plot's complexity, it is worth examining here in some detail. [Note that new characters appear in bold the first time their names are mentioned.] The Big Sleep opens as Philip Marlowe is arriving at the Sternwood residence: "I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars." This fortune, it seems, comes from oil. Marlowe is let in by Norris, the butler, and he immediately encounters Carmen Sternwood, the youngest daughter of General Sternwood. Carmen makes a lot of effort to flirt with Marlowe, until he is called to the greenhouse see the General. The General is "an old and obviously dying man", confined to a wheelchair. It transpires that the District Attorney's chief investigator Bernie Ohls, who Marlowe used to work with, has called him and told him the General wished to see him. Says Marlowe: "I'm told you are a widower and have two young daughters... One of them has been married three times, the last time to an ex-bootlegger... Rusty Regan." The General confesses his fondness for Regan who has disappeared, about a month ago: "He was the breath of life to me..." but also with regard to his daughter that "it was a ridiculous marriage... and it probably didn't last a month, as a marriage." The General then confesses that he is being blackmailed - again. A few months previously he had paid a man named Joe Brody ("some sort of gambler") five thousand dollars to "let Carmen alone". The General is now being blackmailed to the tune of a thousand dollars by an Arthur Gwynn Geiger, a rare books dealer. The blackmail is ambiguous and purports to relate to gambling debts. The General does not know who Geiger is, and claims he refuses to pay this relatively small sum out of pride. It is clear that whilst the older daughter has some money, Carmen is still a minor under the terms of her mother's will, so has no independent access to any funds. For "twenty- five a day and expenses" Marlowe promises to get Geiger off the General's back. Marlowe is leaving when the older daughter, Vivian Regan, asks to see him. They discuss Rusty Regan. She is under the impression that the General has hired Marlowe to find Regan. Marlowe is tight-lipped.
Suspecting there is a lot more to the case than simple blackmail for such a petty amount, Marlowe pays a visit to Geiger's bookshop. He is suspicious of the woman at the counter who "knew as much about rare books as I know about handling a flea circus." A man enters and goes into the back room. He emerges with a parcel, and leaves. Marlowe follows him, and the man ditches the parcel, which Marlowe recovers in some cypress trees. Marlowe obtains a description of Geiger from the store opposite his, and then opens the parcel. The parcel is a book of illicit pornography - "photos and letterpress were alike of an indescribably filth." Geiger clearly runs a "lending library of elaborate smut."
Marlowe stakes out Geiger's store until he turns up accompanied by a "very good- looking kid". Marlowe follows the car to Geiger's house where he sees a white flash and hears a scream. He goes to the front door and hears three gunshots, then one, maybe two cars pulling away. He effects entry and finds Carmen sat drugged and naked in a chair, and Geiger dead on the floor. He then finds a camera - its
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