I had originally read this back in my first series of college. I was taking a topics in English Lit class, titled “Women in Detective Fiction.” We started with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and ended somewhere around Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich. This was one of the novels in the middle.
When I decided to reread it (mainly in a pique of Book ADD – I had just finished Kitchen Confidential, hadn’t decided on another book to read, and didn’t feel comfortable bringing Bound and Determined in to work to read on my lunch break), I knew that it had been assigned way back when because of the sisters in the book, but couldn’t remember what role they each played. To discuss it here would be to give the entire plot of the book away, and since I just spent the past eight hours giving the end of Sunset Boulevard away in a PowerPoint presentation for my Intro to Communication class, I think I’ll take my SPOILER ALERT hat off and just talk about the private detective at the heart of the novel, Philip Marlowe.
Philip Marlowe was eternalized onscreen by Humphrey Bogart in the film adaptation of The Big Sleep. I have seen a couple of Bogey movies, though Big Sleep has not been one of them. (Literally a couple, as it turns out: Sabrina and Casablanca – huh.) I was able to picture Bogey throughout the novel, wearing a trenchcoat and fedora, with a cigarette constantly hanging from the corner of his mouth.
Our first interaction with Marlowe is as he approaches the Sternwood mansion. General Sternwood, a man on his deathbed with two ‘wild daughters’ has asked Marlowe to his house to investigate a blackmail note sent regarding his youngest (and wildest), Carmen. Marlowe waits in the hallway, and takes note of the decoration:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. 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. He didn’t seem to be really trying. [1-2]
What I remember discussing in class — not sure now if it was in a paper or not — was how that last sentence thoroughly explained Marlowe’s character. He can’t not help people in trouble, regardless of the level of danger involved or the character of the rescuee. If he sees a naked woman tied to a tree, he’s going to march over there, get her free, and make her put some clothes on, not take advantage of the situation and leer while ‘trying’ to free her.
For instance: later in the novel, young Carmen Sternwood shows up naked in Marlowe’s bed, and he tries to get her out of it by appealing to her daughterly side:
“It isn’t account of the neighbors,” I told her. “They don’t really care a lot. There’s a lot of stray broads in any apartment house and one more won’t make the building rock. It’s a question of professional pride. You know — 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. Won’t you please get dressed, Carmen?”
“Your name isn’t Doghouse Reilly,” she said. “It’s Philip Marlowe. You can’t fool me.”
I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights. 
Here, the motif of Marlowe-as-Knight continues, and reemphasizes the fact that Marlowe is out of place in this crime-ridden city, holding onto his principles and honor in the face of all this immorality:
“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 a 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. As for the cover-up, I’ve been in police business myself, as you know. They come a dime a dozen in any big city. Cops get very large and emphatic when an outsider tries to hide anything, but they do the same things themselves every other day, to oblige their friends or anybody with a little pull. And I’m not through. I’m still on the case. I’d do the same thing again, if I had to.” 
And the cops are crooked. Half of the force we meet are on Eddie Mars’s* payroll. Eddie Mars is one of the antagonists Marlowe encounters in his quest to first, find Carmen’s blackmailer, and second, find Vivian Sternwood Regan’s missing husband, Terrance Regan:
“If Geiger’s death had been reported last night, the books could never have been moved from the store to Brody’s apartment. The kid wouldn’t have been led to Brody and wouldn’t have killed him. Say Brody was living on borrowed time. His kind usually are. But a life is a life.”
“Right,” I said. “Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.”
*Fun Fact!: Eddie Mars is also the name of the marshal who captured Kate in Australia and tried to bring her home on Oceanic 815. I HAVE BEEN WATCHING TOO MUCH LOST.
So, aside from Marlowe being a knight in the midst of crooked larceny and such, what exactly goes on in The Big Sleep? General Sternwood calls Marlowe in to have investigate an Arthur Geiger, who has blackmailed Sternwood over his daughter’s gambling debt. It turns out it’s not a gambling debt, but involvement in a pornography ring that grew out of control. There are many hands in this black pot. In addition to following the thread through all of the suspects, Marlowe is also looking for Sternwood’s daughter Vivian’s missing husband, Regan. Sternwood took a fancy to Regan and misses him, and Marlowe wants to give the old man some comfort in his waning years.
I struggled with what genre, exactly, to put this novel in. Is it classic literature? Contemporary literature? Legal/Crime? I leaned heavily to Pulp, but it’s almost of a higher class than pulp (although what do I know, I’ve only read one true title in pulp fiction). I ended up with Mystery, because after all, the main point of the story is that Marlowe is trying to figure out what happened to Regan, and that doesn’t get solved until the final fifteen pages of the book.
Like pulp, the novel has a distinct way of talking (if you will). Short, to the point, almost choppy, even, with a great rhythym:
A fresh-faced kid was reading a horror magazine behind the wheel. I leaned in and showed him a dollar: “Tail job?”
He looked me over. “Cop?”
He grinned. “My meat, Jack.” 
I love a) the sound of this exchange, and b) that this kid will work for a dollar.
Another kid is fond of swearing:
“You must have thought a lot of that queen,” I said.
“Go —– yourself,” the boy said softly, motionless between the parked cars and the five-foot retaining wall on the inside of the sidewalk. [97-98]
That’s actually how it’s printed. I love that —–: blocking out swears by using hyphens. I’m going to start doing that from now on. (no, i won’t.)
This made me chuckle:
Shaved, dressed and lightly breakfasted I was at the Hall of Justice in less than an hour. 
… but only because I pictured Marlowe showing up at the Hall of the Justice League.
Finally, the entire 1930s Hollywood crime genre is summed up thusly:
“A guy named Geiger who ran a dirty book racket in a store on Hollywood Boulevard. Geiger was living with the punk I got outside in my car. I mean living with him, if you get the idea.”
Cronjager was staring at him levelly now. “That sounds like it might grow up to be a dirty story,” he said.
“It’s my experience most police stories are…” 
Grade for The Big Sleep: 4 stars