Study Guide

The Big Sleep Principles

By Raymond Chandler


"You can't make much money in this trade, if you're honest. If you have a front, you're making money—or expecting to."

"Oh—are you honest?" she asked and opened her bag. […]
"Painfully." (11.10-11)

Painfully? Really? Maybe Marlowe's talking about his wallet here. It seems like to be moral means to be lacking some serious cash. The more honest Marlowe is, the more painfully thin his wallet gets.

She peeled her right glove off and bit her index finger at the first joint, looking at me with steady eyes. "I didn't come to see you about Owen. Do you feel yet that you can tell me what my father wanted to see you about?"

"Not without his permission." (11.23-24)

The fact that Marlowe refuses to give Vivian the scoop on her dad reveals his sense of loyalty to the General. But why does he feel that sense of loyalty in the first place? Is it because he likes the general, or is it more of a professional code kind of thing?

"You're the hardest guy to get anything out of. You don't even move your ears." (11.62)

Vivian expresses her frustration at Marlowe's silence. Why is Marlowe's discretion an important sign of his strong sense of principles?

"Sure you can't help me on this?"

I liked his putting it that way. It let me say no without actually lying. (11.73-74)

Ohls asks Marlowe for information on the Sternwoods, but his way of asking for help allows Marlowe to "say no without actually lying." As we all know, there's heaps of lying and deception going on throughout the novel, and Marlowe's defining characteristic is his honesty.

"Have you told me your story complete in all relevant details?"

"I left out a couple of personal matters. […]"

"Why" Wilde asked quietly.

"Because my client is entitled to that protection, short of anything but a Grand Jury. I have a license to operate as a private detective. I suppose that word 'private' has some meaning." (18.56-59)

Here we understand why Marlowe chooses to work as a private detective rather than as a cop. He values personal "privacy" and believes in the importance of protecting his client's privacy. Cops? Not so much.

"What are you getting for it all?"

"Twenty-five dollars a day and expenses."


"And for that amount of money you're willing to get yourself in Dutch with half the law enforcement of this county?"

"I don't like it," I said. "But what the hell am I to do? I'm on a case. I'm selling what I have to sell to make a living. What little guts and intelligence the Lord gave me and willingness to get pushed around in order to protect a client. It's against my principles to tell as much as I've told tonight, without consulting the General." (18.77-81)

Marlowe emphasizes his loyalty to his client and his dedication to protecting the General's privacy. Why is Marlowe willing to work for so little pay and to put himself on the bad side of half the police force? Can we really just chalk that up to his principles, or is there something else at work? Hey, maybe he's just stubborn.

The smart thing for me to do was to take another drink and forget the whole mess.

That being the obviously smart thing to do, I called Eddie Mars and told him I was coming down to Las Olindas that evening to talk to him. That was how smart I was. (21.23-24)

By this point of the novel, Marlowe has already solved the case of the blackmail, so why doesn't he just close the case and move on? Well, we know that Marlowe is fond of General Sternwood and it bugs Marlowe that he can't figure out what happened to Rusty. Maybe he can't let sleeping dogs lie because his dedication to the truth compels him to keep digging into the Sternwoods' past.

Eddie Mars: "I hear you got the information already. I felt I owed you a fee. I'm used to paying for nice treatment."

"I didn't drive down here to make a touch. I get paid for what I do. Not much by your standards, but I make out. One customer at a time is a good rule." (21.45-46)

Marlowe again sticks to his principles by refusing to take Mars' money, which really highlights the difference between these two. But it also points to an interesting question: is Mars trying to thank Marlowe for his help, or is Mars trying to buy Marlowe's loyalty?

"It's a question of professional pride. […] I'm working for your father. He's a sick man, very frail, very helpless. He sort of trusts me not to pull any stunts." (24.27)

When Marlowe finds Carmen naked in his bed, he rejects her by saying that it's a matter of "professional pride." Marlowe's professional ethic compels him to remain loyal to the General's interests, even (or especially) when it seems unnecessary or futile.

"You don't know what I have to go through or over or under to do your job for you. I do it my way. I do my best to protect you and I may break a few rules, but I break them in your favor." (30.72)

Marlowe defends his actions to the General by saying that he always acts on behalf of his client's best interests. Does Marlowe ever break the rules for his own self-interests? Can you think of a moment in which Marlowe behaves just like everyone else?