The Big Sleep
First published in the US 1939 by Alfred A. Knopf
This edition Penguin Books, 2011
Source: Wymondham Library
It’s probably impossible for a lowly blogger to find a fresh angle on The Big Sleep. It even has its own Spark Notes with plot summary and quiz.
Why does Carmen Sternwood initially have so little to say about Geiger’s murder?
(A) Because she murdered him
(B) Because she is afraid to speak about it
(C) Because she is drugged senseless
(D) Because she is protecting her lover
However, I celebrated the year 1939 last month on Past Offences, so it would be remiss not to record reading what must have been the most influential book of the year.
Chandler was in his 40s when he published The Big Sleep, a WWI veteran and alcoholic ex-oilman who had lived in England, Ireland and the US.
His creation Philip Marlowe is an honourable gumshoe who wanders the streets of 1940s LA trying to do the right thing for 25 bucks a day. In this first novel he is hired by the elderly General Sternwood to address a small matter of debt. The wealthy Sternwood has two wayward daughters and one of them owes money to a guy named Geiger. Marlowe soon establishes that Geiger’s second-hand bookstore is a front for something more sinister (but honestly, not *that* sinister). When Geiger turns up dead, Marlowe follows his killer deeper into the underbelly of Los Angeles, in the process getting involved in the hunt for Sternwood’s missing son-in-law Rusty Regan.
In the Spark Notes (and the Ian Rankin introduction to this book, and in loads of other places) a lot gets made of the game of chess in Marlowe’s apartment – ‘knights had no meaning in this game’ – and of the Sternwoods’ stained-glass window depicting a chivalric rescue. Marlowe is depicted as a somewhat tarnished knight.
Marlowe has been analysed to death, so I thought it might be interesting to look at one of the pawns in the game.
Harry Jones appears in just two chapters near the middle of the book. In fact it feels like Harry was an unplanned insertion into the plot – he appears out of nowhere, plays his two scenes, and leaves. His plot purpose is to provide Marlowe with the psychological impetus he needs to go back into the murkier end of the Sternwoods’ business at a point when he’s just been generously paid for his services.
A small man, the weight of a butcher’s thumb, with ‘tight brilliant eyes that wanted to look hard’, Harry has fallen for a platinum blonde named Agnes. Agnes is Geiger’s assistant and sidekick to a petty racketeer called Joe Brody. At this point in the story, Marlowe’s already had to wrestle a gun from her.
‘She’s too big for you,’ I said. ‘She’ll roll on you and smother you.’
‘That’s kind of a dirty crack, brother,’ he said with something that was near enough dignity to make me stare at him.
Maybe this is a much-needed lesson in humility for Marlowe. He may be a tarnished knight, but he is a knight. He can talk to the Sternwoods and police captains and mobsters as an equal. He operates without fear of rank or power. And maybe he has become too dismissive of the foot-soldiers.
Harry has some information for Marlowe and wants $200 for it, $200 he needs to get away with Agnes. He thinks it’s a fair price for the information, especially since it could attract him the wrong kind of attention from local kingpin Eddie Mars.
Harry sticks to his guns. He wants to make a fair deal in a risky situation. Eventually, Marlowe pays up, but not until he has been astounded by Harry’s courage.
Like all pawns, Harry Jones seems forgotten at the end of the book. But arguably he has played as big a part in bringing the story to a conclusion as Marlowe.
I’ll leave you with another Spark Notes question, which would have troubled Marlowe:
Where is Rusty Regan?
(A) Dead at the bottom of an empty oil pump
(B) In the oil business in Nevada
(C) With Mona Mars
(D) Hiding under an assumed name
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Rich – Trust you to find such an interesting angle on this novel. As you say, Harry does have his role to play in the story and he plays it well enough. I wonder too whether decent-‘though-flawed characters Chandler uses to comment on the rich and decadent. In any case, you’ve done an excellent job looking at this. Thanks.
*…whether Harry is one of the…* Sorry! *Blush* Wish WP would let one edit one’s comments after posting.
Wish WP would let one edit one’s comments after posting.
Too right. It’s my biggest beef with WordPress aside from the fact that you can’t subscribe to comments without actually making a comment yourself.
Harry Jones appears in just two chapters near the middle of the book. In fact it feels like Harry was an unplanned insertion into the plot – he appears out of nowhere, plays his two scenes, and leaves.
This might be (and I haven’t checked this particular instance) because Chandler cobbled together his novels from previously published stories/novellas. Hence Harry Jones appearing in one section of the novel only.
The classic example of problems resulting from this method of Chandler’s was of course the incident during the making of The Big Sleep when Hawks and Faulkner couldn’t work out who was supposed to have killed the chauffeur. Finally they phoned Chandler, who eventually confessed he didn’t know either.
I hadn’t even noticed that I hadn’t noticed who had killed the chauffeur…
I say Rusty Regan is with Mona Mars and they’re doing a show in the Poconos.
Nice post. I recall that Harry Jones was played by Elisha Cook jnr in the Bogart film version; and his murder at the hands of Mars’ hired thugs is one of the films most chilling moments. It’s a very interesting reading, suggesting Jones is the one to draw Marlowe back into the game; and I think you’re right that Marlowe may see himself above the foot-soldiers, so important that he’s reminded of his own limitations. He may be a knight, but he’s still being played with by unseen hands
Bloody hell Rich, those inane Spark Notes would do my head in 🙂 However, a great book and kudos for focussing on Harry, who is probably the most sympathetic character in it (even more so than the general, who Marlowe clearly also has a lot of sympathy for) – Great to know that unlike so many authors of that era, Chandler is clearly going to survive.
I don’t even know why Spark Notes exist for The Big Sleep. They’re probably longer than the book.
Misguided is what it is … but who cares, great books are bound to attract unwanted attention 🙂
I’d tell you where Rusty is, but it might spoil the story for others. Besides, it’ll cost ya.
That’s dangerous talk in this town.
I loved this book, but I don’t know whether that is because I have watched the movie (Humphrey Bogart version) so many times that the story did not seem confusing to me, even though it is confusing. I loved the style of the writing anyway. It remains to be seen whether I will like the rest of the books so well, but I am looking forward to trying them.
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