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The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Seventy years ago, the Sternwood’s Packard was found washing around in the surf off Lido Pier. When the cops pulled the car out, they found the throttle was set half-way down. Inside the car–Owen Taylor, dead from the impact of a blunt instrument. Who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur? Did Taylor, who loved the General’s nymphomaniac daughter Carmen, kill Arthur Geiger, a blackmailer who had incriminating photos of Carmen?

When Howard Hawks began filming Raymond Chandler’s crime noire masterpiece, The Big Sleep, he realized that the book never resolves the question of who killed Owen Taylor. Scriptwriter William Faulkner couldn’t figure it out either. The two of them must have poured through Chandler’s convoluted tale of corruption and greed searching for the answer. Finally, Hawks called Chandler. “Who killed Owen Taylor?” “Hell if I know,” Chandler replied.

Seventy years ago, Raymond Chandler penned one of the masterpieces of American detective fiction in three months.  With broad strokes he lined out the plot of a dying man who tries to buy his wastrel youngest daughter out of a jam; of his oldest daughter, smart but jaded, addicted to gambling; of Philip Marlowe, the honorable but world-weary detective who has to dig beneath what he’s told to find out the real mystery Sternwood has hired him to solve.  In the film Vivian Sternwood would be played by Lauren Bacall, in one of her greatest roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, the actor who brought Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to life.

So who killed Owen Taylor?  Eddie Mars, who ran a casino and had his fingers in half a dozen other illegal pies? Joe Brody, a small time hood playing in a game bigger than he could handle, or Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s gunman lover?  Does it matter?  Mysteries go unsolved every day.  In this respect, The Big Sleep mirrors real life.

There Raymond Chandler sits, late at night, hammering away at a typewriter creating possibly the best piece f American detective fiction ever written–in 90 days.  Handing it to his editor and maybe, with a shrug, remembering that Owen Taylor’s murder remained unsolved.  “Hell,  lots of murders don’t get solved,” Philip Marlowe might have said.

I fuss and quibble over a plot and a timeline, worrying about getting all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted.  Frustrated, I put everything on index cards and start shuffling.  I wonder if Raymond Chandler ever shuffled index cards or worried about whether whether every block in the puzzled fitted together.  Somehow, I know he didn’t.  Raymond Chandler didn’t need no stinkin’ index cards, he just wrote, arriving at the conclusion like Philip Marlow finding a answer to a question that wasn’t asked (what General Sternwood really wanted from Marlowe wasn’t strong-arming Arthur Geiger, but finding out what happened to Rusty Regan) by a mixture of cunning and intuition.

But–that’s Raymond Chandler for you.  I just use index cards.

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