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The Book Club

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

1. Hardboiled private investigator Philip Marlowe enters the limelight. Raymond Chandler’s protagonist-private detective Philip Marlowe is unlike the traditional detectives of Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes); the former known as the “psychological detective” for his interrogative and evocative investigation techniques, while the latter is characterised by his “Holmesian” analysis. Despite Marlowe’s arrogance and sardonic tone employed in his interactions with the other characters, he walks and talk, and proves to be highly intelligent in his analysis; particularly in terms of piecing random pieces of information, webs of complicated relationships or other evidence available. The hardboiled nature of the text means Marlowe is forced to plough through violence and sex in his journeys, but he – at times – employs violence effectively as a means to an end. His air of confidence empowers him with the necessary panache to converse with other characters – especially Eddie Mars in the beginning – without compromising himself.

2. A “whodunit” and a “howcatchem” merged into one. Conventional detective or crime novels often choose to have their detectives deal with a single case; thereafter, they will go about uncovering either who committed the crime (mystery element), or how the perpetrator would be nabbed (chase and hunt elements). “The Big Sleep” is a mix of all the aforementioned, with distinctive characteristics: there is a complicated network of characters, whose links are slowly uncovered; there are crimes within crimes, murders within murders; there is a multitude of secrets that are not revealed to the reader; all these and more thrown into the mix of sex, violence, double-crossing and money. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Chandler – with his literary style – provided valuable fodder and inspiration for film-makers or script-writers to go about with their productions (the book was set in Los Angeles; a coincidence)?

3. First paragraph from “The Big Sleep. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. 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”.

4. Short, sharp sentences and Marlowe’s confident disposition. The previous quote is an excellent exposition of Marlowe’s strong faith in his own abilities; and the personal confidence displayed with regard to his appearances also reflects his strong inner and mental state, given that it is from a first-person’s perspective. The short and sharp sentences not only moves the narration along at a rapid pace, and sets a relatively exciting atmosphere for the events that are about to unfold, but also further elucidates Marlowe’s working style and thought-process. The distinct form of the mood and tone allows the reader to feel extremely assured in the protagonist’s presence, with the added belief in his capabilities to deliver the results for what is to come. Marlowe also subtly raises his self-importance by focusing on the “four million dollars”; for the huge sum of money automatically translates into the enormity of the task for the reader.

5. Rusty Regan, his purpose and “The Big Sleep”. Rusty Regan, the ex-bootlegger and husband of Vivian Sternwood, has considerable influence on the development of the plot and upon the other characters in the novel, even though he does not physically make an appearance (because he has been in his “big sleep” all along). Even though Marlowe was initially employed by General Sternwood to investigate the case of blackmailing, the private investigator – unfortunately – becomes embroiled in the general scheme of things, and focuses his search on Regan, and the reasons for his disappearance or possible demise. Even though Regan evolves to take centre-stage in the book, his physical disconnect with the world Marlowe finds himself in shows that he remains untainted by the “nastiness” – the schemes, killings, double-crossings et cetera – that incriminates the individuals alive (to the extent that it does not matter what you are surrounded by when you are “sleeping”, Chandler’s clear euphemism for death). The eventual discovery of Regan can be interpreted as a form of enlightenment for the detective, who ruefully reflects on the sad state of affairs that has cruelly engulfed him.

6. The Big Sleep? “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or on 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 on 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 little while, he too, like Rusty Regan would be sleeping the big sleep”.

7. Foreshadowing and foreboding. Along with the techniques that highlight Marlowe’s wit and sarcasm, as well as the romanticisation of the murders and street-level interactions between the characters, Chandler effectively uses foreshadowing and literary devices of foreboding to create a dark and menacing tone for the novel. The title “The Big Sleep” suggests strong connotations related to death and murder, while Chandler has Marlowe make distinct observations, such as with the description of the portrait in the beginning with Sternwood and his family, as well as his interactions with the mentally-unstable Carmen Sternwood towards the end of the novel.

8. Female characters: Carmen Sternwood, Vivian Sternwood, Mona Grant and Agnes Lozelle (I). Carmen and Vivian have both been spoiled by their father Sternwood: the former – because of her lack of awareness, intelligence and mental stability – seems easily manipulated, while the latter – despite her comfort in social contexts and shrewdness – sinks herself in gambling and alcohol. Both sisters lead double lives; a fact that Sternwood is clearly oblivious to. Like Vivian, Agnes Lozelle has to resort to becoming the receptionist for Arthur Geiger’s pornography rentals (a further sign on the state of the community) because of her drug addiction that leaves her needing finances, and naturally resorting to common crimes.

9. Female characters: Carmen Sternwood, Vivian Sternwood, Mona Grant and Agnes Lozelle (II). Finally, Mona Grant remains faithful to her husband Eddie Mars (the novel’s antagonist, who is adept at using individuals to carry out his inconvenient deeds), and loyally follows the instructions given to her; although her assistance to Marlowe in the final chapters shows her ability to recognise innocence, and distinguish between good and bad. Ultimately, passivity (for some, the threat of manipulation looms because the others have certain “holds and handles” over them) is a common thread that runs through the female characters, whose actions are largely dependent on others, and seem incapable of handling independence. It also shows that women – through their multiple relationships and even involvement in the activities – are not free from the sleaze and “dirt” that the city offers.

10. Marlowe’s musings. “Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and quite ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has anymore moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had”, “She’s a grifter, shamus. I’m a grifter. We’re all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel” and “Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights”.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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