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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection

The Big Sleep

cover image By: Chandler, Raymond (male)
Publisher: Pocket Books, Inc. (696 - 3rd printing)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 216: PS3505 .H3224 B4 1950
Contributor: J. Lukin


Era: 1930s Author as on Cover: Raymond Chandler Geographic Locale: Los Angeles, California and vicinity Date of Publication: 1950  |  Original Date: 1939 Setting: urban, with brief excursions to a defunct oil field and a shack in the sticks Motives: blackmail and murder

Plot Summary

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is hired by wealthy General Sternwood to stop a blackmailer. Marlowe suspects that the old General is merely testing his caliber before trusting him with a bigger job, one involving Sternwood's two amoral daughters. The elder daughter, vampish Vivian, then asks Marlowe to find out who is blackmailing her. Determined to learn the truth and to maintain loyalty to the General, Marlowe descends into a milieu of thugs, gamblers, pornography, and crime bosses, meeting criminals too powerful to be brought to justice, being shot at and beaten, helplessly witnessing murders, and resisting the seductive blandishments of both the Sternwood women. Ultimately Marlowe discovers secrets so dark he dare not reveal them to his employer, preferring that the General spend the short remainder of his life in peace.

Major Characters

Philip Marlowe adult male, 33 years old, tall, professional private investigator

Arthur Geiger adult male, fortyish, gay, fat, with a droopy mustache and a glass eye, dealer in illegal pornography and blackmailer

Eddie Mars adult male, middle-aged, dresses all in gray, professional gambler, blackmailer, crime boss

Carol Lundgren adolescent male, gay, tall and handsome, killer, bookstore clerk

Lash Canino adult male, short and squat with a purring voice, always wears brown, professional thug and killer

Carmen Sternwood adult female, 20 years old, drug abuser, psycho killer

General Sternwood elderly male, 80 years old, retired oilman, wheelchair-bound, gaunt and sickly

Harry Jones adult male, 30s, very small, former bootlegger and minor chiseler on the fringes of organized crime

Terence "Rusty" Regan adult male, middle-aged, handsome and vigorous Irish soldier-turned-bootlegger

Vivian Sternwood Regan adult female, late 20s, gambler and future heiress to Sternwood wealth


guns, poison

Level of Violence

four people are shot to death, one drowned, one poisoned, two severely beaten. Violence is generally described concisely and abruptly, without relish.


sexual relations are always just out of reach for Marlowe, and he seems to prefer it that way. Although he claims to resist the advances of the Sternwood women to avoid compromising his loyalty to their father, he admits to himself that their come-ons disgust him. The only woman he actively desires is unreachable -- she's the wife of a powerful crime boss. Marlowe expresses extreme disgust with pornography and gay men. He seems to see the loyalty that a man's girlfriend or boyfriend can inspire as a destructive force.

Gender Roles

Marlowe has no aversion to women who work or men who marry rich. He loathes the oily effeminacy of the gay Mr. Geiger and the butch thuggery of Geiger's boyfriend Carol. He seems to see and resent a pattern of events in which men suffer or die and the women they work with get off scot-free.


all the characters are European-Americans. The Irish Regan is styled as a fine and convivial gentleman; the Italian Canino is a stereotypical thug.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

most of the characters smoke. Marlowe's drinking is primarily social; Vivian admits that she drinks to get drunk. Carmen not only gets drunk but uses ether and laudanum recreationally -- presumably she obtains it from Geiger.

Law Enforcement

both the District Attorney's office and the local police forces are presented as competent. They cooperate with Marlowe because they know he's an ally and with General Sternwood because they know he's rich. They are powerless to deal with organized crime.

Added Features

Marlowe moves freely through various social classes and landscapes, enabling Chandler to provide a broad view of Los Angeles and environs. The city itself becomes a character in the novel.

Subject Headings

Marlowe, Philip/ California - Los Angeles/ Detectives, Private/ Blackmail/ Murder/ Corruption (In Politics)/ Pornography/ Gambling

Psychological Elements

one character is a psychotic who murders when she can't get her way. Marlowe is consumed by guilt, feeling tainted by the crimes he's observed. Vivian seems to suffer shame over the secret she's concealing and indulges in drinking and gambling as avoidance-behavior. Crime boss Eddie Mars has a wife who sentimentalizes him and tries to convince herself that he's not a killer. In the era of the novel, Geiger and Lundgren's homosexuality might have been regarded as a psychological disorder.

Film Adaptations

The Big Sleep, 1946, Warner; The Big Sleep, 1977, United Artists