(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A tough, cynical, independent, thirty-three-year-old private detective, Philip Marlowe, recommended by his friend, Assistant District Attorney Bernie Ohls, agrees to interview wealthy General Guy Sternwood at Sternwood’s lush West Hollywood estate.

Old and dying, Sternwood hopes to salvage the last remnants of family pride nearly destroyed by his two immoral daughters. Sternwood hires Marlowe to thwart Arthur Geiger, a blackmailer. Ostensibly, Geiger is squeezing Sternwood over a gambling debt incurred by Sternwood’s disturbed younger daughter, Carmen. Dim-witted, spoiled, and promiscuous, Carmen unsuccessfully throws herself at Marlowe when he first arrives at the estate, only to be disdainfully rejected.

Before leaving, Marlowe is summoned by the General’s older daughter, Vivian (Mrs. Regan). A seductive, black-haired beauty, Vivian seeks to discover whether Marlowe was hired to locate her missing husband, Rusty Regan. Marlowe already knows from the General that Regan, a former bootlegger and Irish Republican Army officer, was Sternwood’s companion and protector—the bright spot in his waning life. Unimpressed by Vivian’s rich-bitch style, Marlowe, with his trademark insouciance, refuses to reveal his client’s wishes. Vivian seems relieved, however, that Marlowe apparently is not looking for Rusty. Nonetheless, displeased by Marlowe’s blunt talk and lack of servility, she haughtily dismisses him. The detective leaves feeling that he emerged from a decadent loony bin.

Marlowe begins his assignment by casing Geiger’s bookstore and by tracking Geiger, who soon confirms his hunch that the bookstore fronts for the sale of pornography. On a rainy night, he next trails Geiger home. While Marlowe watches, Carmen’s Packard arrives and a woman enters the house.

Events then move swiftly. Light from a flashbulb is followed by a scream inside the house, which draws Marlowe closer. His knock on Geiger’s door is followed by three shots. Someone pounds down Geiger’s back stairs and there are sounds of a car starting. Breaking in, Marlowe finds Geiger dead. Virtually naked and obviously drugged, Carmen, babbling incoherently, appears, unaware of what happened. Marlowe bundles her home in her Packard and leaves her with a trusted maid. Quickly returning to the murder scene, Marlowe finds that Geiger’s body is gone. Since the killer fled, it is apparent that someone else wants Geiger missing. Searching the house, Marlowe locates a notebook listing hundreds of potential blackmail victims, leaving the police plenty of suspects.

The following day, Marlowe accompanies Ohls while Vivian’s Buick is dredged from the water. Inside is a murdered man Marlowe identifies as Owen Taylor, an ex-con who once ran off with Carmen, but who at the end of his imprisonment was retained as the Sternwoods’ chauffeur. After this incident, Marlowe returns to Geiger’s store in time to observe someone removing Geiger’s books. Following the cargo,...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first novel, and some critics say that it is his best, In it, Chandler’s knightly hero, Philip Marlowe, fights vice, particularly materialism and sex, and champions the virtues of loyalty and friendship.

Everything in this unseasonably wet October in Southern California is damp and unnaturally green, a color that Chandler associates with corrupt female sexuality. Marlowe meets his client, General Sternwood, an elderly invalid, in a steamy greenhouse filled with plants “with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” Sternwood wants Marlowe to find out why he is being blackmailed for his daughter Carmen’s gambling debts. Marlowe soon discovers that the blackmailer, Arthur Gwynn Geiger, is a pornographer who uses Carmen as a model. Carmen’s boyfriend, Owen Taylor, kills Geiger, and then gets killed himself.

Joe Brody, a small-time racketeer, steals some nude photos of Carmen and tries to blackmail the Sternwoods. Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s male lover, murders Brody in mistaken revenge for Geiger’s death. The blackmail case is resolved. Yet, out of a sense of loyalty for General Sternwood, Marlowe continues work on the case, now to solve the disappearance of Sternwood’s son-in-law, Rusty Regan, whom the old man loved.

Carmen has killed Rusty Regan, and her sister Vivian, Regan’s wife, knows this. Vivian’s loyalty to her father causes her to call...

(The entire section is 510 words.)