Study Guide

The Big Sleep Violence

By Raymond Chandler


His [Geiger's] glass eye shone brightly up at me and was by far the most life-like thing about him. At a glance none of the three shots I heard had missed. He was very dead. (7. 5)

Geiger's body is the first death we witness in the novel. Marlowe has stumbled upon a gruesome scene of violence, but what catches our eye are the tone and pacing of the sentences. The curt and matter-of-fact tone of Marlowe's voice suggests that he's used to seeing dead bodies. No shock here, folks.

"Drunk, hell," the plainsclothesman said. "The hand throttle's set halfway down and the guy's been sapped on the side of the head. Ask me and I'll call it murder." (9.40)

Owen Taylor's death is the second act of violence in the novel, but the cause of his death remains unknown. We don't know whether someone murdered him, or whether he committed murder due to his unrequited love for Carmen. Why does Chandler decide to keep Taylor's death unresolved?

The giggles stopped dead, but she didn't mind the slap any more than last night. Probably all her boy friends got around to slapping her sooner or later. I could understand how they might. (12.48)

Marlowe does his fair share of roughing up women. He slaps Carmen around several times during the course of the novel, and also gets pretty rough with Agnes. Is his occasional violence toward uncalled for? Does this uncouth behavior affect the way we see him as a modern day knight figure? We certainly think so.

No excited neighbors hung out of doorways. A small gun had gone off and broken a pane of glass, but noises like that don't mean much any more. (15.30)

Violence has become so commonplace that people no longer notice when they hear a gunshot. Yikes. No wonder Marlowe's fighting a losing battle.

He wanted to fight. He shot at me like a plane from a catapult, reaching for my knees in a diving tackle. I sidestepped and reached for his neck and took it into a chancery. (17.16)

Marlowe gets into a pretty violent fistfight here with Carol Lundgren. This is only one of many examples of Chandler resorting to violence, but it's one of the most graphic.

It was a nice write-up. It gave the impression that Geiger had been killed the night before, that Brody had been killed about an hour later, and that Captain Cronjager had solved both murders while lighting a cigarette. The suicide of Taylor made Page One of Section II. (19.38)

If violence is a symptom of the depravity of modern society, what's even worse is the covering up of violent crimes. Marlowe is disgusted when he realizes that all the newspapers have reported Brody's and Geiger's deaths inaccurately, and he knows it's possible that the newspapers have been bought off.

I heard a sharp cough. Then a violent retching. There was a small thud on the floor, as if a thick glass had fallen. My fingers curled against my raincoat. (26.47)

Harry's death is the most tragic in the novel since he died protecting Agnes. It's also the only death where the victim is killed by deception (rather than a bullet). Instead of being shot to death like Geiger and Brody, Harry is tricked into sharing a drink with Canino. But the drink is poisoned. Check out the pacing of the sentences and the way the suspense is built up. Marlowe hears a series of disturbing noises: coughing, retching, thud, glass shattering. All culminating in the image of Marlowe's clenched fingers. That sent chills down our spines, how bout you?

Perhaps it would have been nice to allow him another shot or two, just like a gentleman of the old school. But his gun was still up and I couldn't wait any longer. Not long enough to be a gentleman of the old school. I shot him four times. (29.17)

In this scene, Marlowe wants to do the honorable thing and give Canino a few more seconds to turn around before shooting him. But he realizes that he can't afford to be like a gentleman or knight of olden days. Modern society no longer observes rules of chivalry, so Marlowe knows that it's kill or be killed.

She said bitterly: "Did you have to kill him?"

I stopped laughing as suddenly as I had started. She went behind me and unlocked the handcuffs.

"Yes," she said softly. "I suppose you did." (29.22-24)

Mona's one of the few characters other than Marlowe who seems to be not a terrible person. She not only remains faithful to her husband, but expresses bitterness when she sees death. Mona didn't even like Canino (she tricked Canino into shooting at the wrong target to enable Marlowe to escape). But Mona still wishes that Marlowe didn't have to kill Canino, which means it's also a moment of moral ambiguity for our guy. It's possible he could have gotten out of this situation without killing Canino, and that makes (and him) question his decision.

The gun pointed at my chest. Her hand seemed to be quite steady. The hissing sound grew louder and her face had the scraped bone look. Aged, deteriorated, become animal, and not a nice animal. (31.47)

Carmen's attempt to kill Marlowe is the final piece to the puzzle as Marlowe realizes that she was the one behind Rusty's death. And his description of her is as chilling as that revelation.