The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler Essays

    But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor
           -Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art Of Murder

By the time Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, in 1939, the private detective story had already--thanks in large part to the template established in The Maltese Falcon (1930)(Dashiell Hammett 1894-1961)  (Grade: A+)--become genre fiction.  The elements were all firmly in place: first person narration; more metaphors and similes than you can shake a stick at; a lone, hard drinking, tough guy detective; an ex-cop of some kind, frustrated by the corrupt system of justice; beset by a convoluted case set among the upper classes; femme fatales;  temperamental gunsels; disappearing corpses; hostile police and prosecutors; and so on.  But both Chandler and Ross MacDonald demonstrated that working within that genre it was possible to produce great literature--which The Big Sleep definitely is.

Chandler's detective, Philip Marlowe, is the quintessential knight errant.  When first we meet him in The Big Sleep, he is entering the Sternwood mansion, about to be hired by General Sternwood:

    The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high.  Over the entrance doors, which
    would have let in a troop of indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a
    knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some
    very long and convenient hair.  The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable,
    and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting
    anywhere.  I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to
    climb up there and help him.  He didn't seem to be really trying.

Sternwood, though elderly and decrepit, has two young daughters, who are continually getting into trouble.  The General hires Marlowe to clear up the matter of some gambling debts incurred by the younger girl, Carmen.  At the same time, he mentions, but does not ask Marlowe to investigate, the mysterious disappearance of his son-in-law, an ex-IRA officer, ex-bootlegger, of whom the General was extremely fond.

Marlowe's investigation leads him into a litter of corpses, a pornography ring, thickets of mobsters and dirty cops, and the increasing realization that Carmen Sternwood, though childlike, is no innocent.  Marlowe's ideals run up against the pervasive corruption of modern Los Angeles.  Returning home to his apartment one night, Marlowe finds a nude Carmen in his bed.  While attempting to get rid of her, he turns his attention to a chess problem:

    I looked down at the chessboard.  The move with the knight was wrong.  I put it back where I had
    moved it from.  Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights

When he finally orders her to leave, Carmen begins hissing and spitting at him like some kind of animal.  Like the woman in the stained-glass panel, Carmen is a nude damsel in distress, but she is no lady, so what point is there to Marlowe's code of chivalry?

Ultimately, Carmen turns out to be even more of a monster than Marlowe imagines, responsible for the death of Regan, and he ends up betraying his own ideals in order to protect the General.  Having cut a deal with the older Sternwood daughter to have Carmen committed to an institution, he is most troubled by his failure to secure justice for Regan:

    What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on
    top of a high hill?  You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by
    things like that.  Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you.  You just slept the big sleep,
    not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness
    now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn't have to be.  He could lie
    quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting.  His heart was a
    brief, uncertain murmur.  His thoughts were as gray as ashes.  And in a little while he too, like
    Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.

I think he's being a little too hard on himself here.  Carmen is pretty clearly psychotic and it's hard to see what good purpose would be achieved by turning her over to the machinations of the law.  Certainly Marlowe has helped cover up her crimes, but neither he nor she stand to gain from this.  Allowing the General to go to his grave innocent of the reality of his daughter's evil simply doesn't seem like such a bad trade off in this instance.

Amazingly, Chandler may have only been rescued from obscurity by the fine film version of this novel--at the time of the movie's release, 1946, none of his novels were in print.  This would have been a terrible loss to American fiction; Marlowe is our modern Don Quixote (see Orrin's review), trying to hold back the tide of modernity by upholding an antiquated, but still compelling, code of honor.

Western American Literature


Since 1965, Western American Literature has been the leading peer-reviewed journal in the literary and cultural study of the North American West, defined broadly to include western Canada and northern Mexico. We are constantly looking for new theoretical approaches to canonical figures as well as studies of emerging authors, filmmakers, and others who are expanding the canon of western literary and cultural production.

Coverage: 1966-2012 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 47, No. 3)

Moving Wall: 5 years (What is the moving wall?)

The "moving wall" represents the time period between the last issue available in JSTOR and the most recently published issue of a journal. Moving walls are generally represented in years. In rare instances, a publisher has elected to have a "zero" moving wall, so their current issues are available in JSTOR shortly after publication.
Note: In calculating the moving wall, the current year is not counted.
For example, if the current year is 2008 and a journal has a 5 year moving wall, articles from the year 2002 are available.

Terms Related to the Moving Wall
Fixed walls: Journals with no new volumes being added to the archive.
Absorbed: Journals that are combined with another title.
Complete: Journals that are no longer published or that have been combined with another title.

ISSN: 00433462

EISSN: 19487142

Subjects: Language & Literature, Humanities

Collections: Arts & Sciences XIII Collection

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