Anatomy of a Book: The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. (p.1)

This pleasant self-description by Philip Marlowe, the narrator, is evidence of him taking on a different role.

I was calling on four million dollars. (p.1)

One that is of high value.

(Describing a painting) 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. (p.1)

We can tell Marlowe is a man of action, low in patience, practical, and has an enjoyable use of words.

‘As a matter of fact I’m not here. You’re just seeing things.’ (p.43)

It was a screen writer who said that if you can hook the audience into the characters and story early then the structure need not follow all the rules. This is true for The Big Sleep. It is a classic “book noir” (the novel precursor to film noir). It is famous for the characters and the language, and these are almost more important than any other element. The story is still important.

Changing Status:
Philip Marlowe is a low paid, semi-outcast, private detective who unravels the history and crimes of the higher paid and more influential. The Sternwood family who hire him are rich, but are involved in sordid affairs.

High Stakes:
For most of the book this issue seems low. Marlowe’s life is not directly threatened and the Sternwood’s seem capable of withstanding any attack despite the money being discussed.

Page Turner:
Interest in the character’s secrets and the beat of the language is a bigger pull than any other stake. Still, there is jeopardy as people die and time moves quickly as events directly come to ahead.

Believable Characters:
The world is created with brevity in description. Marlowe narrates and the reader has confidence in him. He is direct, and the characters hold their own status. None have a clear weakness. This helps the world play its role in the story.

The life of a private detective is somewhat exposed. The secret life of people the reader gets to know is also exposed.


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