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Raymond Chandler

The Big Sleep (1939)
The Thirties

In Introduction to American Studies, Ralph Willett and John White claim that:

The detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler plunged the reader into a brutal and disordered world closer to the shabby urban environment of the dominant newspaper headlines, and provided a writing close to the form of contemporary anxiety. […] Hammett’s and Chandler’s private-eye detectives fill out a vague region somewhere between the criminal underworld on the one hand and the society of money, power and dishonest cops on the other. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe indeed represents a vanishing ethical code, like the knight in the Sternwood window panel, redeeming the drab, tacky world he encounters with versatile wisecracking. Yet his wry, sleazy style in turn neutralizes his aestheticism. […] It now seems Chandler’s Marlowe, lonely, vulnerable, edgy, who best evokes the mood of the decade. (234-35)

They also remind us what people had to be anxious about:

The Wall Street crash now became a continuing and worsening catastrophe. (220)

Per capita income dropped, unemployment soared; "beggars, bread-lines and soup kitchens appeared in every city," (221); hobos rode the railcars; and migrant farm workers fled the dust bowl. It wasn’t just Negro share-croppers from the Mississippi Delta who were singing the blues, Woodie Guthrie was riding the stock cars, composing and singing his white man’s blues, for working class folk across the land. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 and introduced the "New Deal," a programme of political reform, designed to give some dignity and security back to ordinary Americans. He was re-elected to office in 1936 on an even more left wing platform, but the United States was still suffering from economic depression and business recession in 1937-8. Arguably, turning attention to outside enemies guaranteed that Roosevelt was elected to office for a third time in a row, even though the New Deal had been running out of steam. Moreover, it was the gearing up to a wartime economy that helped the States out of the economic and psychological doldrums. Published in 1939, Chandler’s The Big Sleep sums up the mood of the thirties, just before the war transforms it.

California & Los Angeles

California has to be seen as the end point of immigration. If you are coming from Europe and the East Coast, California is as far west as you can get. At the same time it is the coast that settlers from the Far East, i.e. Asia, arrive at. In the thirties waves of European intellectuals emigrated from central and Eastern Europe and came to California. In particular they were fleeing fascism; so writers such as Adorno, Brecht, Horkheiner, Marcuse, Thomas Mann and composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky, as well as modernist architects were among this group of émigrés. Many of them belonged to The Frankfurt School for Social Research, which was set up in 1923. It was composed mostly of left wing, German, Jewish intellectuals. The Frankfurt School emphasised the power of capitalism, owning and controlling new media, to restrict and control cultural life in unprecedented ways, creating a "mass culture" of stupefying conformity, with no space for innovation or originality. Members of the Frankfurt School left Germany, after the Nazi rise to power in 1933.

The American film industry had relocated from East to West Coast a couple of decades previously. The major production companies moved to California, partly because there was a "friendly civic administration in Los Angeles," (Mitchell & Maidment 104), partly because the weather was reliable for outside shooting, and also perhaps to escape anti-Semitism. So, long before the thirties, California is home to a media industry. There was an uneasy relationship between the major Hollywood production companies and the community of exiled intellectuals. Writers and composers were supported by this mass culture industry – e.g. Wiilliam Faulkner; but intellectuals and artists were also wary, indeed paranoid about it. They were both dependent on it and critics of it, especially because of the way it transformed the production of culture from the work of an individual artist to an industrial plant. (After the end of World War 2, when the Cold War led to anti-Communist witch-hunts, a number of intellectuals were forced back to Europe. They must have suffered a double disappointment, first with Nazism and then with McCarthyism: the dream of a new beginning turned into the nightmare of the un-American activities committee.)

California is home to the Media industry, but it is also the site of agricultural empires, since the climate is also conducive to growing fruit that needs Mediterranean like conditions, with orange groves, avocado ranches, vineyards, etc.

Then, cutting across this image of Hollywood glamour and acre upon acre of thriving citrus groves, we have to remember that the third major industry in California is the arms industry. As the thirties progresses, the American Defence Industry picks up steam; and you find shipping construction, aircraft builders, and armaments contractors, all contributing to the prosperity of the state. In the post-war, post-modern world this eventually leads to Silicon Valley. So you might say that already in the thirties, California is a site of cultural and economic contradictions.

The Big Sleep is specifically about the experience of Los Angeles (not just California in general); so I want to consider in a slightly more focused way, what exactly is this phenomenon called Los Angeles. Already in the thirties it is a commodity. The movie dream machine manufactured a cultural artefact, called Hollywood, i.e. a suburb of Los Angeles, which was advertized and sold like any other commodity. Except that it was more lucrative than selling cigarettes or mouthwash – perhaps!

Los Angeles was not a city with a heart, or a city centre. It never had an industrial core or centre. It was created by a series of advertising campaigns, which sold the idea of home ownership in semi-rural suburbs. Its developers traded on the currency of the American Dream, and the power it still held over ordinary city dwellers’ imaginations. So Los Angeles developed as a series of sprawling suburbs extending every further out into the desert. It is based on a myth that the desert can be made to bloom. Which is to say, by piping water to arid areas you can keep on constructing more and more communities. This led to the famous water conspiracy, which is the factual basis of Polanski’s Chinatown. So across the nation of building zoned areas for upmarket, single family residences. And of course these zoned areas allow communities to practice racial segregation, as white homeowners move further out from the inner city, leaving Hispanics and blacks in inner city housing, and of course Chinese and Asian-Americans in Chinatown.

These new suburban dream developments look like a version of the American Dream, but in reality they are far from urban paradise. For a start they are based on fear and paranoia, and a need to keep undesirable elements out; so increasingly they are walled and gated communities. Secondly, they lead to vast suburban sprawl, increased commuting time, so that now many inhabitants of LA commute an hour and a half each way every day. Thirdly they lead to a city dependent on a car economy. The inhabitants of single family detached housing all travel and commute in their individual automobiles. LA is a city you do not move around on foot; it is not friendly and certainly doesn’t feel safe to be a pedestrian there. These leads to a fourth problem: air pollution, the famous LA smog. Even in the thirties LA is a city that looks glamorous and attractive, but is actually described as a place of violence and corruption.

To take the example of just one area: Fontana suburb. A closer look at its history reveals the complexity behind the image. It was originally developed by A.B. Miller as an American, Utopian development. It was thus part of the affluent "Valley of the South," an irrigation colony based on the notion of homesteading, so that each plot was a model small farm. So it was in Mike Davis’s words, "a real-estate promotion cleverly, and extravagantly, packaged as semi-utopia," (382); yet at the same time it was a successful example of the inter-war years’ "back to the land" movement. [See City of Quartz p. 378]

This was all transformed by the "second" New Deal of the late 1930s. The second, more radical New Deal was anti-trust and so federal money was diverted away from the Trust Corporations toward "new money." This in reality meant funding new local development through individual speculators, such as Henry J. Kaiser. He decided to build a steel mill in Fontana, as part of the build up to wartime armaments production. [ibid p. 391]. The story of how that once thriving steel industry finally gave way to global competitors would take us way past the thirties and on to the contemplation of the industrial waste land that Fontana has become. But one image of its latest "industry" occurs right at the end of Mike Davis’s book, when we get the surreal photograph of the stone elephants and lions, that used to stand at the entrance to Selig Zoo in Eastlake Park, now consigned to one of the many junk-yards around the old steel factory’s grounds.

"Junkyard of Dreams"

To recapitulate: concentrate on the development of Fontana suburb from 1906, when A. B. Miller began to construct irrigation canals and plant eucalyptus groves, through 1913, when his company began to lay out the town site; through to the early 1930s, when people in droves began to buy homestead plots, rear chickens and, when they could afford it buy houses according to a limited range of patterns, — and you see an industrialized, mass-marketed, development, using all the tricks of advertizing to promote the new suburb. Yet you also see an experiment in modern, urban living and life style that retains historic importance. Then, with the build up to World War 2, entrepreneurs began to realize that the California coast was going to be the base for a global, all out war in the pacific. This goes hand in hand with Roosevelt’s New Deal needing to find new impetus at the end of his second term of office, and the public mood swings round to back the war effort. The Fontana Farms area becomes the site of Henry J Kaiser’s Steel Mill, and a model for later post-war industrial practices, now commonly referred to as Fordism. I.e. a high productivity, high-wage economy. Fontana becomes notorious as "the roughest town in the county" and the birthplace of the Hell’s Angels in 1946. The earlier dream gives way to the Pacific era, with attendant regional pollution from the high sulphur content of the coking coal used at Fontana. "Kaiser spokesmen reassured residents that the plant ‘could be erected in the middle of an orange grove and operated continuously without the slightest damage to trees’. By the end of the first year, however, disturbing evidence to the contrary had become obvious. […] Ranchers across from the mill picked grapefruit from their trees for the last time in the fall of 1942." (392).

Which is to say, LA is a city, which manufactures, projects and sells dreams; but the dark side of all this is that the dreams are precarious myths, often built on corrupt and speculative investment by a few individuals, with the connivance of civic officials. Dreams of utopia have a strange habit of turning sour in Los Angeles. One apt metaphor for this, is that from 1921 onwards, A. B. Miller owned the garbage contract for the city of Los Angeles, and the garbage was trucked out to Fontana Farms to be fed to the pigs that the idealistic inhabitants were raising on their small farm plots.

As Mike Davis puts it: 

The ultimate world-historical significance – and oddity – of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism. (18)


Film noir with its expressionist lighting, deep-focus photography and disconcerting shot composition, was a genre which displayed noticeably more cynicism than the classic Hollywood style (Mitchell & Maidment 118). The message was more menacing, and the paranoid hero featured prominently, as the chapter on Hollywood in Mitchell & Maidment reminds us. The paranoid hero is the product of the complexity of an intensely imagined LA, and Philip Marlowe is the literary prototype of numerous celluloid copies. Mike Davis asks at the start of City of Quartz: "whether ‘Los Angeles Brings it All Together’ (official slogan), or is it, rather, the nightmare at the terminus of American history (as depicted in noir)." (20) He goes on to remind us that "LA is probably the most mediated town in America, nearly unviewable save through the fictive scrim of its mythologizers," and suggests that the bringing together of hardboiled American novelists and anti-fascist European exiles resulted in their together radically reworking "the metaphorical figure of the city […] to expose how the dream had become nightmare. […] Noir everywhere insinuated contempt for a depraved business culture while it simultaneously searched for a critical mode of writing or filmmaking within it." (20-21)

Philip Marlowe

Marlowe is a very European American. Critics differ as to the provenance of the name, but it certainly recalls both the Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe and also the Conrad character and narrator of Heart of Darkness, Marlowe. I think the challenge in reading this text as literary text, — as opposed to as a scenario for later screenplays — is to try to gauge the tone of Marlowe’s narrative. Also, you might want to consider whether Marlowe is "hard-boiled" but that Chandler invites you to delve into his subconscious and unconscious mind. Or is Chandler as hard-boiled as his narrator/protagonist; and are we then intrigued by Chandler’s own unconscious paranoia, misogyny and homophobia?

One way to read the text is to see Marlowe’s unconscious mind as both the subject and the instrument of the book. We learn to discern more of him from the clues he provides; but also he is a highly sensitive receptor and transmitter of LA as dystopian modern city. As a private detective he is not implicated in organized corruption, whether at City Hall, in LAPD, in respectable families or in Rialto – the neighbourhood of Fontana where Mike Davis assumes Eddie Mars casino is located (398). He can maintain his integrity by not colluding with power, by being proud to be a cynic and insubordinate:

"I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives."

"And a little bit of a cynic," the old man smiled. "You didn’t like working for Wilde?"

"I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General."

"I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it. What do you know about my family?" (15)

The relationship is not entirely unlike Carraway’s and Gatsby’s: Marlowe admires and protects General Sternwood, because he likes his old-fashioned sense of honour, however deluded that might be. He can see that the General has failed (has certainly failed his family), and yet he remains loyal to him. There is something of the same ambivalent fascination, in this case though it’s for old -- or should that be "oil" -- money, not new. The cynicism is part of his "armour," it’s how he keeps his distance, remains detached and thus is enabled to work out the puzzle he’s paid to solve. The question remains, however, whether he is sexually repressed or whether he suppresses his sexual responses as a necessary part of the job. I’ll come back to that. But I want to consider the chivalric imagery first.

Hard-boiled or chivalric

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 armour 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 though 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.

There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon packard convertible. Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs. Beyond them a large greenhouse with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the soldi, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills. (9)

This is LA, so the family mansion feels like a film set. The initial description conveys artificiality and inauthenticity. The French doors are not "French" but reproduce a certain style originating in France. This theme is continued with the trees trimmed as carefully as poodles, and is central to the stained glass window with its image of the "knight in dark armour." There are a number of points, which I think need to be made about this chivalric scene. Firstly, the stained glass window is more usually associated with Catholicism than with Puritanism. California’s immigrant, Hispanic population was predominantly Catholic. The General’s grandfather is portrayed as having fought in the Mexican War, i.e. in the war of territorial expansion against Mexico. There is a powerful colonial feel to this opening scene, and the Sternwoods have perhaps appropriated some of the artwork and taste of the Latin civilization they have conquered. So there is a slight tension in this stained glass window depicting a chivalric icon being placed as spoils at the entrance to the family mansion. Power is maintained through wealth; the landscape is clipped and tamed because the family has the money to afford this. Conversely, wealth is attained and retained through power.

So, part of the implication of this scene is the ambiguity about the General’s power and powerlessness, or impotence, due to his age. Marlowe will "have to climb up there and help him," later on in the text. I think it’s important to remember the distinction between chivalric and courtly love. They are not the same thing. Courtly love is a later cultural development, and undermines the earlier chivalric code. Chivalry refers to a moment in medieval culture and society when knights could be figured as redeemers, as upholders of moral standards, as questors of the Holy Grail. In the Chivalric code, inherited social position and political power are synonymous. It is thus quite a straightforward code, to be noble one merely needs to be born into the right class. The code of Courtly love questions these assumptions, and radically suggests that nobility is about inner moral purity, not about birthright. The courtly lover can be of a low class, but can achieve refinement and noble virtue through rigorous self-control and sublimation of his eroticism. The courtly lover is not necessarily a knight, he is more likely to be a poet and musician, whose power is in his art of gentile persuasion.

At crucial moments in the text, the image of the knight recurs; and yet it is never totally connected to the figure of Marlowe himself: 

"Cute, aren’t I?" she said.

I said harshly: "Cute as a Filipino on Saturday night."

I went over to a floor lamp and pulled the switch, went back to put off the ceiling light, and went across the room again to the chessboard on a card table under the lamp. There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn't solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight, then pulled my hat and coat off and threw them somewhere. All this time the soft giggling went on from the bed, that sound that made me think of rats behind a wainscoting in an old house. (150-1)

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights. (152-53)

Knights have a code of honour, although it doesn’t involve chastity to the same extent that courtly love does. Yet this isn’t a game for knights, partly because Carmen Sternwood is no lady. She is consistently associated with animal imagery. Here it’s rats, just afterwards she’s likened to a "cat in long grass stalking a young blackbird." She has small sharp teeth and hisses a lot. In fact in this short scene she "giggled" half a dozen times, and she "hissed" or a "hissing noise came tearing out of her mouth" as many times. The other character who is associated with catlike predatory behaviour is Canino (which of course means little dog). In the scene where he murders Harry Jones his "purring voice" is referred to not six but seven times. (167-170). But Marlowe states: "You died like a poisoned rat, Harry, but you’re no rat to me." (173) So, Marlowe also has a strict code of honour, even though he knows it’s out of place in this dark world of the LA underworld. His is a code that puts a premium on being able to distinguish the moral reality behind appearances, to know who’s a "rat" and who isn’t; and in the dénouement of the plot his life depends on being able to read the signs accurately and not be deceived by the surface show.

I rang the bell. It was five days since I had rung it for the first time. It felt like a year.

A maid opened the door and led me along a side hall to the main hallway and left me there, saying Mr Norris would be down in a moment. The main hallway looked just the same. The portrait over the mantel had the same hot black eyes and the knight in the stained-glass window still wasn’t getting anywhere untying the naked damsel from the tree.

In a few minutes Norris appeared, and he hadn’t changed either.  (201)

The recapitulation of this image reinforces the sense of its being both applicable to Marlowe and discordantly inappropriate to the scenario. Marlowe already suspects that Carmen is more serpent-like, witch-like murderess than she is cute, child-like damsel in distress. And by now he has presumably guessed that he has been hired by the General to find out that which everyone else in his household already knows: namely that Carmen Sternwood shot Rusty Regan in a fit of pique, because he refused to be seduced by her. Nothing has changed in this stained-glass scene, because all the family members are working assiduously to keep up the false appearances. (I assume this is why Marlowe never discovers whether Owen Taylor was murdered or committed suicide. As a mere chauffeur, he is dispensable and is not a necessary part of the cover up. Which is to say, the courtly love code of the aspiring male lover of a lower class courting the woman of higher rank is not applicable in the Sternwood household.)

One further aspect of this recapitulation is the sense of a ritual testing. "It was five days since I had rung it for the first time. It felt like a year." This reminds me more than anything of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with its recurrent allusions to the pentangle. And again there is a sense in which Marlowe is being tested; since he is in the dark about crucial information which everyone else in the household he enters knows about. The difference being that the General is also in the dark, and is indeed preparing for the "big sleep."

The General in his greenhouse, surrounded by orchids, presents an image of a corpse surrounded by the stinking flowers of evil and death. He presents an image of life-in-death or death-in-life, which is compounded by the absence of any allusion to his late wife. So just as LA garbage was transported out to Fontana Farms to feed suburban middle-class dreams or illusions of living a simpler life on the site of modernity, so the General surrounded by his hothouse flowers does not suggest an Edenic suburban garden but represents a family in a state of moral degeneration. The other classic text he reminds me of fleetingly is King Lear. The difference from the "original" Lear is that here there is no third younger daughter, no redemptive Cordelia, to remain true to him in adversity. (See Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, esp. "Nakedness: the Unaccommodated Man," 105-110).

Women & Gender

I’ve entitled my final section "women & gender," although it might be more appropriate to call it "pornography." If Marlowe isn’t the knight in dark armour, because this isn’t a game for knights any more, I don’t think I can really make a case for him belonging to the later code of courtly love. The condition of modernity in a large conurbation renders this an even less likely "game" than chivalry. I want to quote from Marshall Berman to remind us where I started, i.e. with the fact of Los Angeles as site and subject of Chandlers’ detective fiction:

One of the central themes of this book has been the fate of "all that is solid" in modern life to "melt into air." The innate dynamism of the modern economy, and of the culture that grows from this economy, annihilates everything that it creates – physical environments, social institutions, metaphysical ideas, artistic visions, moral values – in order to create more, to go on endlessly creating the world anew. This drive draws all modern men and women into its orbit, and forces us all to grapple with the question of what is essential, what is meaningful, what is real in the maelstrom in which we move and live. (288)

Marlowe is the LA version of Baudelaire’s "modern artist" negotiating the streets and the crowds and the moral and structural chaos of Californian urban culture. Chivalry has been annihilated, just the image of it remains as a pictorial reproduction in stained glass. Marlowe is a dark knight, not a knight in shining armour; and he has his flaws and compromises to help him get through the night: too much whisky is one obvious one. His is not mens sana in corpore sano. (That’s still in my 1919 Webster’s but not in my 1990!) And it’s not just whisky that gives him a hangover, women do too. But his sexual restraint is not in order to sublimate eroticism into a more spiritual or mystical adoration of the Lady, it is because in this environment he needs to stay detached and objective to survive. He is a "private eye" or a private dick": he makes a living by being solitary and perceptive, and by not being sexually compromised or seduced. If he were he couldn’t see the naked truth of the sex industry; the exploitation of erotic desire for profit. In the section where Marshall Berman alludes to King Lear, he is in fact explicating a passage from Marx, which I’d like to read you:

The bourgeoisie has torn apart the many feudal ties that bound men to their "natural superiors," and left no other bond between man and man than naked interest, than callous cash payment. It has drowned the heavenly ecstasies of pious fanaticism, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egoistical calculation. … The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hithertoo honored and looked up to with reverent awe. … The bourgeousie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and turned the family relation into a pure money relation. ... In place of exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has put open, shameless, direct, naked exploitation. (qv. 106)

Mike Davis judges that " some principal noir auteurs, like Chandler, went little further than generalized petty-bourgeois resentment against the collapse of the Southern California dream," (21); and he may be right. Yet, Chandler’s text and his characterization of Marlowe in particular communicates an urban, modernist environment where all sentimental veils have been stripped away, and where family members do exist in "a pure money relation." Marx’s analysis, that "in place of exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has put open, shameless, direct, naked exploitation," is certainly appropriate to the production and distribution of pornography. And remember that America’s sex industry is located inter alia on the fringes of Hollywood. Moreover it permeated the mainstream Hollywood industry as well. Young starlets were kept in houses that Movie directors and producers visited and considered their own private brothels; it was one of the perks of the trade. So, erotic desire has been recreated as the erotic pose and the erotic gaze, captured on camera in order to be purveyed for profit. The only hint of an exception to this is Marlowe’s response to "Silver Wig." And yet she remains a visual stuntwoman fresh from the make up and dressing room, to be gazed at and dreamed about, not touched or loved.

One might want to make something of Marlowe’s homophobia, and suggest that his inability to respond to women is unnatural in a healthy heterosexual male. But I don’t think that is the point. I think, because he is the one protagonist who still has a trace of integrity, he recognizes that "the bourgeousie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and turned the family relation into a pure money relation." The best he can do is desire a fetishized but icy silver wig, a walking talking metonym that has replaced the original innocent blond of medieval iconography. The worst he could do would be to respond to "the not nice animal" that Carmen reveals herself to be. Carmen embodies the horror of naked humanity when the veil is stripped away, but then she has grown up in a family that is worth "four million dollars." To end by quoting Chandler’s initial paragraph:

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, tied 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. (9)

By keeping his clothes on Marlowe distances himself from the bourgeouisie, the urban dwellers who according to Marx have "left no other bond between man and man than naked interest, than callous cash payment." By stripping naked for Geiger and for Marlowe, Carmen confirms that she has grown up knowing only the ethics of callous cash payment. But then, what else has LA in general, and her father in particular ever taught her?

Helen M Dennis

Primary Text Cited

Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep. London: Penguin Books, 1948.