Study Guide

The Big Sleep Introduction

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The Big Sleep Introduction

It's time to play "A Day in the Life Of" game. Let's say that you're given the chance to live a day in the life of your favorite detective character. Who would you pick?

Sherlock Holmes? No brainer, right? Who wouldn't want to wear Holmes' plaid cape and deerstalker cap while smoking a calabash pipe and effortlessly solving intricate crimes that turn out to be, "Elementary, my dear Watson."

Or maybe you'd rather be Columbo for a day. Instead of Holmes' cape, you could carry your rumpled old trench coat in one arm. You could dupe criminals into thinking you're an absented-minded bungler, before dazzling them with your razor-sharp breakdown of the case.

But let's get really creative here. We here at Shmoop are going to think outside of the box and suggest a detective that some of you may not have heard about: Detective Philip Marlowe. Ring a bell, anyone? No? Well, you're in for a treat because this guy's just about the coolest (sometimes cruelest) sleuth around.

Marlowe's the private eye investigator in Raymond Chandler's hardboiled detective novel The Big Sleep. He's a gritty, wisecracking, hard-drinking, tough-as-nails gumshoe living in 1930s Los Angeles. Marlowe doesn't solve cases with the ease and flair of Sherlock, nor does he have the quirky, folksy charm of Columbo. In fact, he's a deeply flawed loner-type who—more often than not—can be a bit of a jerk.

See, what makes Marlowe so interesting is not how good he is at being a detective (we'd say he falls squarely in the middle of the pack), but rather, how true to life his character is. He's not a superhero at unraveling mysteries like his more famous counterparts, but the fact that he fumbles through each case by the skin of his cranky teeth  makes him all the more real and believable.

He's got that anti-hero thing going on, which is just what the world was looking for when The Big Sleep was published in 1939. The Great Depression was raging, World War II was looming on the horizon, and folks weren't really in the mood for shinny happy people tying shiny happy crimes up in red bows. So The Big Sleep, jam-packed with corrupt policemen, double-crossing women, shady blackmailers, and gunmen for hire, gives us a different take on the truth.

Chandler's bleak account of corrupt American society became the perfect subject matter for 1940s and 50s Hollywood movie directors, who created a new cinematic style known as film noir (literally "black film"). Film noir is best known for its grim plotlines, dark lighting, tough guys and femme fatales. Chandler's novel The Big Sleep is actually more well-known as the 1946 film noir starring none other than Humphrey Bogart (we like to call him Bogie) in the role of Marlowe. Bogie is of course the quintessential tough guy with a hard shell hiding a soft heart. And even though he gets battered and bruised by life's brutality, he always stands up for what's right. And that puts him high on our list of good guys.

So if we ever get the chance to live a day in Bogie's… err, we mean… Marlowe's shoes, we'd sign right up (and bring a bulletproof vest).

What is The Big Sleep About and Why Should I Care?

Okay, so now that we've convinced you that Marlowe is just as awesome as Sherlock and Columbo, we're going to let you in on something that might even earn Mr. Marlowe the title of Best Detective of All Time.

We're all familiar with the traditional knight in shining armor storyline, right? A knight is supposed to be courageous and bold. Virtuous and honorable. Always on the lookout for a new adventure. And always willing to lend a helping hand to anyone in distress. Usually damsels. Old news, right?

How about if we told you that Marlowe thinks of himself as a modern-day knight? That's right: a tough-guy detective crossed with a dragon-slaying knight makes for a pretty rad combo in our book. What makes Marlowe a modern-day knight is the fact that he follows what's usually called a "code of chivalry." Chivalry can include things like bravery, honor, courtesy and heroism. All right, so maybe Marlowe isn't off slaying fire-breathing dragons, but he does have to dodge bullets and rescue women. He's also willing to risk his own life in order to best serve the interests of his client. Sure, his code might not look all that noble to us, but in the Chandler's corrupt vision of America, it's a marvel this guy holds to a code at all.

Most importantly, Marlowe is always dedicated to his quest for the truth. No matter what obstacles stand in his way, whether it's the sexual temptation of a beautiful blonde or the threat of death from a revolver, Marlowe is unflinching in his commitment to the truth. And this is what makes his character still so relevant to our own lives. We may not have to face dragons or bullets on a daily basis, but hardships can take many other forms. And Marlowe's strong sense of right and wrong in the face of all challenges speaks to our own efforts to lead an upright life.

The Big Sleep Resources


The Raymond Chandler Website
Need any helpful criticism or additional links on Chandler and his works? This is the site for you.

Movies or TV Productions

The Big Sleep (1946)
Chandler's novel was made into a film starring Bogart as Marlowe and Bacall as Vivian. Bogart embodies pretty much everything we want to see in a tough hardboiled detective, and this movie was an instant classic. Watch it. Like, now.

The Big Sleep (1978)
Robert Mitchum takes on the main role in this version. Some say that they like Mitchum's portrayal of Marlowe, even more than Bogart's classic portrayal. We'll leave it up to you to decide who's better.


Chandler Interview with Ian Fleming
Total awesomeness. This is only interview ever recorded with Chandler, and it just so happens to be with the guy that wrote the James Bond novels. Worlds colliding.


The Big Sleep Trailer
If this doesn't make you want to watch the whole movie, then we don't know what will.


Chandler with Pipe
Here's Chandler in his forties, hard at work churning out that hardboiled prose.

Chandler's Los Angeles
Photographer Catherine Corman captures Chandler's gritty Los Angeles in her book Daylight Noir.

Bogart and Bacall Movie Poster
Nothing beats a vintage 1940s movie poster with the celebrated Bogart and Bacall duo.

Mitchum as Marlowe Movie Poster
And we can't forget about the movie poster of gun-toting Robert Mitchum playing Marlowe, either.

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