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The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler

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Plot Overview

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, to an Irish mother and a Pennsylvanian father of English descent. His father was a railroad engineer, an alcoholic, and an unfaithful husband who abandoned his family after he divorced Raymond's mother in 1895. Though Chandler resented his father greatly, in later years, it would become evident, in marriage to a much older woman named Cecilia Pascal, that Chandler came to take on many of the characteristics he had so disliked in his father.

When Chandler was seven, his mother took him to England to be was raised by his mother and his mother's family. He attended preparatory schools and had, by 1907, become a British subject. After receiving a strong, classical education, Chandler tried his hand in freelance work. By 1908, he was writing for such London periodicals as the Academy and the Westminster Gazette.

In 1912, Chandler decided to move back to the United States. When World War I came, he served in the Canadian Expedition Force and was later involved with the R.A.F. In America, Chandler settled in Los Angeles, a city whose people he did not like and never grew to like. At first, he had great difficulty finding work, and found himself picking apricots for twenty cents an hour and stringing tennis rackets for a tennis racket company.

Chandler's hardship did not last long, however, as he soon fell right into the hands of California's oil boom of the 1920s. At the age of thirty-two, he was given a job in the oil business, and before he knew it he had risen to the top of the industry. It this experience in the oil industry that led Chandler to criticize the corruption of such industries, as he does in The Big Sleep through the character of General Sternwood.

It was at this point, during his involvement in the oil business, that Chandler fell to the vice of his father: drinking. Chandler was fired from his job, and, as the Great Depression of the 1930s had set in, he set his mind against the corporate world and began to once again dedicate his time to writing. He began to read pulp novels, especially those of Dashiell Hammett, his predecessor in the modern detective genre and in what would later become known, in film, as film noir. Chandler began to write for the Black Mask, a magazine that published detective fiction and mysteries. He wrote his first novel, The Big Sleep, in 1939, in a time frame of only three months. In creating the novel, Chandler cannibalized two of his earlier short stories, "Killer in the Rain" and "The Curtain."

The publication of The Big Sleep, then, came during the heart of the Great Depression and just before the start of World War II. Therefore, the novel, not surprisingly, carries with it much of the cynicism of 1930s America. The catchy dialogue of the main character, Philip Marlowe, is the epitome of what came to be known as "hard-boiled" style—the racy, clever, tough street talk of the detective narrative. The Big Sleep broke away from the previous style of detective fiction, which includes narratives such as the Sherlock Holmes tales and the novels of Agatha Christie. Chandler not only broke away from the language of previous detective fiction, but was also unconventional in plotting, in his play with order, and in the addition of more than one plotline. Chandler's innovations led to the film style of the 1940s and 1950s called film noir.

Chandler's novel launched an American trend. The Big Sleep was well received, achieved early recognition within its genre, and slowly made its way into the realm of "great literature"—evidence that critics realized the education and literary ability with which Chandler wrote his first novel. Though Chandler was indeed a primary figure in the development of this new detective genre, he did not achieve it all on his own. Other figures—such as Chandler's own inspiration, Dashiell Hammett, who penned the classic The Maltese Falcon (1930)—also made significant contributions.

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