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Review of The Big Sleep

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

sample from the cover of the BBC radio dramatizations of Chandler's work, including The Big Sleep.

sample from the cover of the BBC radio dramatizations of Chandler's work, including The Big Sleep.

Raymond Chandler Introduces Philip Marlowe

Hired to end a blackmailing scheme, Philip 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, including other criminals and the police. In time Marlowe gets caught up in this case too, yet it appears to be barely related to the original 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. Marlowe and a few other characters are trying to have dignity in a world that often appears amoral if not one that rewards wickedness.

First edition cover

First edition cover

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. Even the author admitted to losing track of a few plot details, so readers can expect a tangled sequence of events. 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.

© 2010 Seth Tomko


Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on November 02, 2010:

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.

Huntgoddess from Midwest U.S.A. on November 02, 2010:

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.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 09, 2010:

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

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 09, 2010:

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

James A Watkins from Chicago on June 09, 2010:

Scroll to Continue

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

billyaustindillon on June 08, 2010:

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

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 07, 2010:

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

valbond from UK on June 05, 2010:

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.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 03, 2010:

Thanks for stopping by, Shinkicker.

Shinkicker from Scotland on June 03, 2010:

Nice Hub satomko

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

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 03, 2010:

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

Tracy from San Francisco on June 03, 2010:

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.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 02, 2010:

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

valeriebelew from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA on June 02, 2010:

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

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on June 02, 2010:

I appreciate that.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 02, 2010:

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

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on June 02, 2010:

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

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