The Big Sleep Background

The Big Sleep Background

The context within which Raymond Chandler unleashed The Big Sleep upon an unsuspecting world of murder mystery devotees may be surprising to some. Although Chandler had established his hard-boiled variety of murder mystery within the world of short stories published in pulp detective magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, it remained to be seen whether he could expand that particular talent to meet the depth and complexity required to fill an entire novel.

Everything changed with 1939’s publication of The Big Sleep. Literally. Not only did Chandler more than prove his detective stories could survive the length and intricacy required of the medium of the novel, but The Big Sleep also revolutionized the popularity of long-form murder mysteries. Part of Chandler’s stimulus for going long with the convoluted investigation by PI Philip Marlowe into the sinister underbelly of the respectable Sternwood family and their unwholesome dalliances with mobsters, the corrupt cops who protected the mobsters and the porno films they financed was to add what he felt were some singularly glaring deficiencies in the British detective novels which currently dominated the genre.

As a result, The Big Sleep was greeted with a level of praise normally reserved for the latest from William Faulkner or John Steinbeck. Here, at last, was a detective novel in which character development was no longer subordinated plot contrivances and in which unlikely coincidences and sheer luck saved the killers from getting away with it. The Big Sleep served to place Philip Marlowe right there alongside Sam Spade as the prototypical hard-boiled, fedora-wearing detective, but the nymphomaniacal Carmen Sternwood and her older sister Vivian—the very personification of still waters running unexpectedly deep—as well as the shadow figure of Eddie Mars all served notice that a revolution in the murder mystery characterization was coming.

The revolutionary trail blazed by The Big Sleep also extended to a jazzier, distinctly American vernacular that stood in lively opposition to the staid prose which explained how Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple and other British detectives went out getting their man. And on that topic, perhaps the most radical departure from the conventions of those British detective novels that Chandler dismissed as painfully unrealistic is the fact that The Big Sleep comes to a close without Marlow having made sure all the bad guys get punished. That Marlowe lives and works in a world where justice simply isn’t guaranteed set the stage for not just for an evolution in detective novels, but predicted the coming of film noir and even the postmodern detective fiction of the late 20th and early 21st century.

The legacy of The Big Sleep was confirmed in 2005 when it made Time Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest English-language novels ever published.

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