Creating a Perfect Opening for a Novel—Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”

In the California literature Honors course that I am teaching at Azusa Pacific University this semester, we are studying Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, a classic of hardboiled detective fiction that features private investigator Philip Marlowe solving mysteries in a noir-ish and unforgettable Los Angeles setting.

After the students read the book, one of the first ways we studied it was simply to read out loud and analyze the first few pages. Chandler wastes no time. His opening establishes the novel’s tone and atmosphere, captures the personality of the narrator Marlowe, and propels the plot into motion. It isn’t easy to do all those things at once. If you don’t believe me, try it.

Take a look at The Big Sleep’s first two paragraphs:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. he didn’t seem to be really trying.

What information do we learn from these two paragraphs? A private detective has dressed up in a nice suit in order to call on a wealthy client who lives in a mansion.

Those are the facts, but Chandler’s words tell us much more. Why describe the outfit in such detail, even down to the socks? If you pick up a hint of sarcasm in that little bit of over-description, it is confirmed in the next sentence: “I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” That declaration conveys more than the surface meaning of the words. As one of my students put it, “Someone who is usually sober doesn’t need to point out that he is sober.” The same is true for being clean and shaved. Marlowe may be revealing a few weaknesses in that sentence, but also a few strengths: he’s frank, down-to-earth, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like him already.

Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it. For example, take at “I was calling on four million dollars.” A lesser writer might have settled for something like, “I was calling on a wealthy client.” Chandler’s sentence is better than that in both tone and content. We now know how wealthy General Sternwood is (his four million is in late 1930s dollars), and more importantly, the tone indicates Marlowe is not over-awed by money.

His sarcasm toward ostentatious displays of wealth is extended in the second paragraph, when he describes the Sternwood mansion. He doesn’t need any direct comment about how gaudy he thinks the place is. The fact that the entrance doors “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants” tells the reader plenty about Marlowe’s attitude toward the house. His commentary on the stained-glass artwork tells us as much about the unpretentious detective as it does about the questionable artistic taste of the Sternwoods.

The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.

12 thoughts on “Creating a Perfect Opening for a Novel—Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”

  1. Outstanding tone. The noir hasn’t been overcooked, which is one of the genre’s main failures. Instead it’s smart and snappy, and has a flavor to it. I love that part of it.

    Having never read the book, does it “speed up” at all in the beginning? The tension seems subdued, and maybe almost too subdued? But, I’m assuming he ramps up the tension quickly when the narrator meets with his new client? I want to read the book now…

    • Jay,
      Yes, the pace of the novel is pretty fast. The plot is complicated, with lots of characters, so some readers pretty much give up on figuring it all out and simply enjoy the atmosphere, the clever dialogue, and the well-drawn characters. I would also recommend the movie version, which stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It’s a classic too.

  2. I love it! From the first two paragraphs alone I am instantly thrown into the story. I can visually see the mansion, the detective and the stained glass. I am curious as to how the character of the detective will develop as the plot unfolds.

    I haven’t read the book before, but after these two paragraphs I almost feel as though I must.

  3. Wow I need to read this book! It is so captivating even from the get go. I really like the fact that his humor is so evident from the beginning. A lot of times books take forever to get into and the author slowly works into grabbing the reader’s attention. I definitely can appreciate a good opener! I also think that for me as a writer it would help to read a book like this to diversify my approaches. I think that some techniques like this are good to practice with and work on. Thanks for sharing! I’ll have to grab a copy (:

  4. First off, I love your approach to reading the first pages out loud and analyzing them to grasp just how much Chandler packs into the beginning of the novel. I agree that his first paragraphs immediately grab the reader’s attention with descriptive imagery of the character, Marlowe, and his situation. I agree that it is hard in any form of writing to set the tone for the entire novel in the first few lines. I can already picture the scenery, his outfit, and the smirk on his face. Now that I love the beginning, I just have to go finish it! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Interesting. Even though for the briefest of moments, his description of his suit annoyed me, that was quickly overshadowed by how well those first 2 paragraphs were put together to grab the reader.

    This would indeed be an excellent book to read and study with a writer’s eye to learn from what works. I just requested it from the library!

  6. Thanks for this engaging piece. I’m trying to learn more about great beginnings, and this certainly was one. Now I have to read and watch “The Big Sleep”.

  7. Dr. Bentz, thank you for sharing this post! Like many of the previous comments, I have never read this book before; after reading what you had to say and the excerpt which you included I am feeling that this would be a great book to invest in. After reading the first couple sentences of the excerpt, I was drawn into the narrator and the story that he was about to tell. I was hoping you included more of the excerpt than what was there :) It was THAT good! I’ll have to pick up a copy soon! Thank you!

  8. I haven’t read this work but these paragraphs seem to be a great introduction into the way this writer thinks and sets the stage for his novel. I agree with the Humphrey Bogart reference. I collect old films and this introduction strongly resembles and old movie. I see the begging with Bogart dressing, a glass of ice cubes and and empty bottle of gin sitting in his study. The introduction is so thorough that the author forces the reader to see his exact picture. After reading the introduction I would definitely read the book. – Christine Fannin – American Class

  9. I have never read this book, but now I want to! I like how the beginning of the book gets straight to the point. In just two paragraphs, we see the setting and who this narrator is. In addition, we get a unique feel for Marlowe, as we get a sense of his style, down-to-earth mindset, and humor.

    When I read the description of the suit, I sighed, expecting the narrator to be an arrogant bigot who is just full of himself throughout the book. The smart humor in the next three lines changed my mind, and I smiled as I realized Marlowe is a bit sarcastic. So far, he seems like a person I would like….and I AM insanely curious to find out what his case is. I’ll have to find out over the summer!

  10. I think this post highlights the importance and subtlety involved in setting up a great novel. In my experience, many novels are either made or broken by the degree to which they can succeed at introducing themselves.

    I haven’t read this book, but just reading through the introduction makes me want to read it very much! Thanks for posting Dr. Bentz!

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