The Big Sleep
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Exposition (Initial Situation)
Marlowe Takes a Case
We find out in the opening pages that Marlowe, as a private detective, faces a ton of difficult, moral decisions on how to best serve his client at every turn. Does he do everything in his power to perform his job to the best of his ability? How much does he protect his own safety while on the job? To what extent is he allowed to break the law in order to better serve his client's interests? We'll see that Marlowe has a rough job as a private dick, but he seems to always make a point of upholding his moral beliefs.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
Marlowe Finds a Stiff
Geiger's been shot to death and now Marlowe has to deal with another blackmail scheme involving nude photos of Carmen. Sheesh, this novel is just one series of blackmails after another.
The first blackmailer (who was playing the General) Geiger is bumped off, and when Marlowe identifies the second blackmailer (the one after Vivian) as Joe Brody, Marlowe tries to blackmail the blackmailer. But then Brody is also knocked off, and the cycle of blackmailing continues with the introduction of Eddie Mars and his crew. If you're scratching your head in confusion here, just try to roll with the punches.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
Marlowe Gets KO'd
We already mentioned the deaths of Geiger, Taylor, and Brody, each climax-worthy in our book. But then there's also the sad death of poor Harry Jones. He dies drinking water poisoned with cyanide, in an effort to protect Agnes. His death leads Marlowe to the information regarding the hideout location of Eddie Mars' wife, Mona. All of this culminates in Marlowe being knocked out cold by Mars' gunman, Canino.
After recovering consciousness, Marlowe finds himself handcuffed, sitting next to Mona. With Mona's help, Marlowe manages to shoot Canino and make his escape. Chandler does a masterful job here of making us hold our breaths as Marlowe sneaks out of the house to make his escape. And the real suspense that closes this scene is the fact that as Marlowe drives away unscathed with Mona sitting beside him in the car, we're left asking: If Mona didn't run off with Rusty Regan, then where could Rusty possibly be hiding? Better yet, is he even still alive?
Marlowe at the Wrong End of a Gun Barrel (Again)
The scene between Carmen and Marlowe probably doesn't sound like your typical falling action. In fact, it sounds more like the climax, right? But in The Big Sleep, it's almost impossible to clearly distinguish between complications, climaxes, and denouements since they're all closely tied together. And of course, everything happens incredibly fast (again, imagine that you're on a roller coaster).
The reason we think this scene can be read as falling action is because Marlowe knew in advance to load the gun with blanks. This means that he suspected Carmen and was setting up a test for her. And when Carmen confirms Marlowe's suspicions, he's then finally able to put together all the pieces of the puzzle.
Marlowe Contemplates The Big Sleep
After Carmen's attempt to kill him, Marlowe is certain that she's the one who murdered Regan. Like Marlowe, Regan rejected Carmen's advances and Carmen's response was to flat out shoot the poor guy.
The novel comes to end at breakneck speed and we're left practically gasping for breath as we realize that Carmen is the murderer, or should we say murderess. Marlowe leaves us on a note of cynicism as he contemplates the unfairness of life and how death is the only escape from life's cruelty.