Structure and Language
The director Billy Wilder said of Chandlers novels, 'by God, a kind of lightning struck on every page', and by the time Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, he had been honing his distinctive prose style for some time. He did not publish his first short story until he was forty-four, in 1933, and went on to write twenty- two more short stories, eight of which he 'cannibalized' (his term) in the process of producing his novels. The Big Sleep - written in only three months in the spring of 1938 - has its plot drawn from two of his short stories, Killer in the Rain and The Curtain, and incorporates small pieces of Mandarin's Jade and Finger Man. (See Further Reading)
As has been discussed, the plot is deliberately complex, and it does leave one mystery outstanding - the death of Owen Taylor. The most obvious killer would seem to be Brody, although Marlowe is convinced that whilst "it's physically possible," it is "morally impossible. It assumes too much coincidence and too much that's out of character for Brody... He was a crook, but not a killer type." We implicitly trust Marlowe's judgement of character - which is after all, one of the ways the author can give us clues as to the true facts. And character, rather than some conveniently discovered piece of evidence is what Marlowe picks up on to solve the case: "I'm not Sherlock Holmes... 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." If the cops do overlook anything, "It's apt to be something looser and vaguer, like a man of Geiger's type sending you his evidence of debt and asking you to pay like a gentleman..." Perhaps Brody sapped Taylor too hard, was worried he'd be had up for murder, and attempted to fake a 'suicide.' Either way, it hardly mattered for Brody, he would be dead within twenty-four hours.
John Sutherland (see Further Reading) posits an intriguing suggestion as to the killer of Taylor. In brief, he suggests that Taylor was in cahoots with Geiger and Brody. Seeing the chance of getting a lot of money off the general, he took Carmen to Geiger's house, and shot Geiger to get the negative. He then met up with Brody, where Brody double-crossed him, sapped him, took the negative, and left him to face the murder rap. Meanwhile, it seems Taylor must have had material on Carmen that forced the Sternwoods to keep him in their employment despite his prior convictions. So, Vivian had a word with her friend Eddie Mars, asking him to bump Taylor off. Mars put a 'heavy' (Canino?) on the case, who, finding him unconscious in his car, drove him off the Lido pier. Sutherland then asks if this plot 'hole' was there for the canny reader to work out, there to 'generate an enveloping narrative fog', or as a reserve plot-line to fall back on should the denouement require it. Given Chandler's skill with plotting, and the plot's otherwise water-tightness, the final option seems unlikely. Chandler did admit that 'I really don't seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously as I should,' but Taylor's unresolved death serves an important thematic purpose: Taylor is expendable - a petty crook with bad luck. With no money or influence, his death is neatly covered up by a police force that we know is corrupt. And life, unlike fiction, Marlowe would be quick to point out, does not leave everything with neat endings.
There are few greater words of praise for the strength of an author's style than to be given an adjective, and 'Chandleresque', as well as referring to his type of complex plotting and snappy dialogue, refers to writing that owes its debt to his expert and vivid descriptions of people and place. (Of course, Chandler himself owes a debt to the writers who were his inspiration, such as Dashiell Hammett, creator of San Francisco private eye Sam Spade, and an early review described The Big Sleep as simply 'Hammettic'.)
"The best writing in English today is done by Americans..." wrote Raymond Chandler. "The merits of American style are less numerous than its defects and annoyances, but they are more powerful... It is a fluid language, like Shakespearean English, and easily takes in new words, new meanings for old words, and borrows at will and at ease from other languages." (And today, English is so immensely global - thanks largely to the Americans - that this fluidity has taken on a new pace.) Chandler's love of the American language is notable as he spent much of his childhood in England, and when he returned he was forced to 'relearn' American English: "I had to learn American just like a foreign language... I had to study it and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialism, snide talk to any kind of off- beat language, I do it deliberately." Or as he said on another occasion: "Would you convey my compliments to
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