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The Big Sleep | Study Guide

Raymond Chandler

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The Big Sleep | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Blackmail and Murder

In 1930s Los Angeles, Arthur Gwynn Geiger attempts to blackmail oil millionaire General Guy Sternwood over his younger daughter's activities. Sternwood hires private detective Philip Marlowe to investigate the case. When Marlowe comes to the house to discuss matters, the daughter herself, Carmen Sternwood, flirts with Marlowe, and the General's married older daughter, Vivian Regan, tries to manipulate him for information. Vivian is married to ex-bootlegger Rusty Regan who disappeared recently.

Marlowe goes to the bookstore run by Geiger and discovers it is a front for a pornography ring. When he stakes out Geiger's house, Carmen Sternwood's car arrives. Marlowe hears gunshots and someone running out of the back of the house. By the time Marlowe breaks into the house to find out what happened, the person is gone. Carmen Sternwood is sitting in the house naked, and Geiger is on the floor dead. Marlowe searches the house and finds a notebook written in code. He dresses Carmen and takes her home. Marlowe then walks back to Geiger's house, only to find the body has disappeared.

More Blackmail and Murder

The next morning a body is found in a car belonging to the Sternwoods. When the district attorney asks Marlowe about it, Marlowe identifies the dead man as Owen Taylor, the Sternwoods' chauffeur. Continuing on the case, Marlowe returns to Geiger's store and follows a truck from there to criminal Joe Brody's apartment. Marlowe then goes to his office where Vivian Regan waits for him. She tells him about a second blackmail attempt, which he agrees to investigate. When he returns to Geiger's house, he finds Carmen there and the gangster Eddie Mars arrives. After they talk briefly, Mars pulls a gun on Marlowe and searches him.

Marlowe then visits Joe Brody to follow up on the truck from Geiger's office. Agnes, the blond woman who works in Geiger's shop, is there. Apparently she is Brody's girlfriend. As they talk, Carmen Sternwood arrives and pulls a gun on Brody. Violence erupts, with Carmen shooting wildly. Marlowe grabs Carmen's gun and then sends her away. He negotiates with Brody for the naked pictures of Carmen—the object of the blackmail attempts. During their dealing, the doorbell buzzes. When Brody opens the door, someone shoots him dead and runs away. Marlowe trails and captures him: it is Geiger's homosexual lover whom Marlowe turns over to the district attorney. Marlowe then meets with representatives of the various law enforcement agencies involved, sharing most of what he knows.

Sex and the Sternwood Sisters

Curious about Rusty Regan, Vivian's missing husband, Marlowe consults the Missing Persons Bureau the next day. The Sternwoods' butler calls to let him know the General considers the case resolved. Marlowe, however, isn't so sure and visits Eddie Mars at his club to talk about the case. As Marlowe leaves, he sees Vivian Regan win big at roulette. On her way out of the club with her winnings, she is accosted by a masked gunman who tries to rob her. Marlowe steps in to prevent the robbery, about which Vivian Regan shows no surprise or fear. Marlowe gives Vivian a ride home. She asks him to drive near the water. When he does, they stop and start kissing. He interrupts the intimacy by asking what Eddie Mars has on her. She gets angry, and he takes her home. When Marlowe gets home, he finds Carmen Sternwood naked in his bed. He turns down her advances and makes her leave.

One Missing Person Found, One Still Missing

The next morning Marlowe confronts the man who, Marlowe notices, has been following him: Harry Jones, a grifter. Jones tells Marlowe that Agnes, now Harry Jones's girlfriend since Brody's death, knows where Eddie Mars's wife is. She went missing about the same time as Rusty Regan (Vivian Regan's husband and Mrs. Mars's former boyfriend). Marlowe agrees to pay $200 for the information, but when he gets to Jones's office the next day, he hears him talking to Lash Canino, a known killer. Canino poisons Jones and leaves him dead on the floor. When Marlowe searches the office, Agnes calls. They agree to meet so Marlowe can pay her for the information.

Once Marlowe gets the information, he drives to Realito to look for Mars's wife. However, he gets two flat tires and has to approach a garage on foot—in the dark and rain. He finds it is the place where Agnes saw Mars's wife. When Marlowe asks for help with the flat tires, the garage owner reluctantly helps him, but then he and Lash Canino, who is there guarding Mrs. Mars, jump Marlowe and knock him unconscious. When he wakes up, he is handcuffed and tied to a chair in a room with Eddie Mars's wife guarding him. They talk, and she unties him (though she doesn't have the keys to the handcuffs). She explains she never ran off with Regan and is hiding at her husband's request. The men who beat Marlowe are out but expected back soon, and Mona Mars warns him to get out immediately.

Still handcuffed, Marlowe goes out into the rain and darkness. While retrieving a gun from his car—tires fixed—he notices a car pull up to the house. He gets the gun, returns to the house, and then throws gravel at it. Canino shoots, and Marlowe tricks him into thinking he's been shot. Canino comes out to finish Marlowe, and Mona Mars helps fool Canino. Marlowe sneaks up on him and shoots him dead.


Marlowe meets with Captain Gregory, an officer at the Missing Persons Bureau, to confer about the case. Gregory suggests Marlowe leave the Sternwoods alone. However, he is recalled the next day by the butler and hired to find Regan. As Marlowe is leaving, he sees Carmen in the garden and returns her gun to her. She asks him to teach her to shoot it, and they drive to an abandoned oil field to practice. However, when Carmen takes the gun, she tries to shoot him. She then has a seizure and passes out. He drives her home.

Marlowe meets with Vivian Regan and explains what he has figured out: her husband is missing because he turned down Carmen's sexual advances, and she killed him for rejecting her. Vivian Regan finally admits this is true and reveals the hold Eddie Mars has on her: she needed his help to dispose of Regan's body, not wanting anyone, especially her father, to know about Carmen's actions. At Marlowe's insistence she agrees to get her sister the help she needs. Marlowe leaves, thinking about the case, Regan, and death. He stops for drinks on the way home.

The Big Sleep Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Marlowe is hired to investigate a blackmail attempt.

Rising Action

2 Marlowe learns Carmen is involved with Geiger.

3 Taylor murders Geiger while Carmen is there.

4 While Marlowe sees to Carmen, Geiger's body is taken.

5 Owen Taylor's body is discovered in Sternwood's car.

6 Marlowe pressures Brody to return nude photos of Carmen.

7 Geiger's lover kills Joe Brody.

8 Marlowe pursues and captures Geiger's lover.

9 Marlowe gets a lead on Mona Mars's whereabouts.

10 When Marlowe finds Mona Mars, Canino beats him up.


11 After Mona Mars helps Marlowe escape, he kills Canino.

Falling Action

12 The General hires Marlowe to find Rusty Regan.

13 Carmen Sternwood tries to kill Marlowe.

14 Marlowe realizes Carmen killed Rusty Regan.


15 Marlowe makes Vivian Regan agree to get help for Carmen.

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