I’m almost finished reading Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel The Big Sleep again . I read it several years ago . Marlowe is still the same old Marlowe , but he doesn’t seem to have his gun with him this time around as often as I would have thought. Maybe I’ve been watching too many movie versions of the story . Sorry , I should’ve said ” He wasn’t wearing his gat “.
The novel was published in 1939 and it’s set in Los Angeles ; Hollywood mostly . There are Philip Marlowe aficionados who track the various locations mentioned in the Chandler novels . I imagine that some entrepreneurs somewhere give tours of the places , like the bus tours of the Charles Bukowski hangouts , or the cemetery tours to grave sites of famous idols who’ve bitten the dust , who’re pushing up daisies . You know : the big sleep .
A Chicago overcoat is what it would get you , little man . So says the out-of-town hired killer Canino to Harry Jones , the two-bit not-so-tough guy who tries to put the bite on Marlowe for two hundred bucks for certain information . Marlowe holds back at first , but then agrees to meet Harry one night ; but Canino gets there first .
I’m a grifter , Harry had told Marlowe . We’re all grifters . So we sell each other out for a nickel .Okey .
Marlowe observes : He reached for another of my cigarettes , placed it neatly between his lips and lit it with a match the way I do myself , missing twice on his thumbnail and then using his foot . He puffed evenly and then stared at me level-eyed , a funny little hard guy I could’ve thrown from home plate to second base . A small man in a big man’s world . There was something I liked about him .
Marlowe had suggested that Harry might consider taking the information he had to the police . Harry answers : I haven’t pulled anything in here . I come in talking two C’s . That’s still the price . I come because I thought I’d get a take or leave it , one right gee to another . Now you’re waving cops at me . You oughta be ashamed of yourself .
We never quite know where Marlowe stands . He knows cops and he knows the underworld , but he holds his cards close to the chest and he makes up his own mind when and how to cooperate with either side . He knows the 1930s L.A. cops can be as corrupt and vicious as the criminal hordes and the corrupt politicians and high rollers who run the city . He harbors his own sense of right and wrong and he gets by ; he does his thing for twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses .
At the beginning of The Big Sleep Marlowe goes up to the Sternwood mansion and talks to old General Sternwood in the old man’s orchid greenhouse . The old man is half-dead and needs the cloying wet warmth of the orchids . A butler brings Marlowe a drink and the General tells Marlowe of a blackmail letter he’s received , or two , and mentions his run-away son-in -law , the ex-bootlegger ,ex-Irish Republican Army leader Rusty Regan . Marlowe agrees to work on the blackmail angle —- for $25 a day plus expenses .
At some point in the story the Sternwood chauffeur runs a family car off the Lido pier into the ocean one night with him in it . Accident ? Is it suicide ? The coroner finds an ugly bruise on the side of the guy’s head . It looks like the guy was sapped and the car set full-throttle . It looks like murder .
We never find out just who murdered the chauffeur , by the way . Chandler was asked about that little loose end in his novel . He said that he didn’t care . I think maybe Marlowe had figured it out , that he always knew but didn’t tell even the author the straight dope on that caper . Maybe because Chandler wouldn’t fork over the twenty-five bucks daily fee or tried to chisel on the expenses .
On main street of Cascade. Cascade, Idaho, July 1941. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in .
Cronjager , the Chief of Police , tells Marlowe off in front of the District Attorney when they both met in the D.A.’s home :
That kind of thinking is police business , Marlowe . The Chief L.A. cop goes over some of the recent events . There were murders that might not have occured , he says , if Marlowe had turned over his information to the police . Harry Jones , the small-time grifter , has been poisoned by Canino . The Chief says something to the effect that he won’t loose any sleep over the loss of a guy like that , But a life is a life , he says .
Marlowe , no wilting violet , answers back : Right . Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare .
And then there’s Eddie Mars , the gambling joint owner whose wife may or may not have run off with Rusty Regan . He tells Marlowe : I’m nice to be nice to , soldier. I’m not nice not to be nice to . Okey . Fair warning .
Marlowe has a comment on the newspaper reporting on his adventures : I read all three of the morning papers over my eggs and bacon the next morning. Their accounts of the affair came as close to the truth as newspaper stories usually come — as close as Mars is to Saturn .
Well , the plot is a little less important in a Chandler novel than the dialog and the atmosphere . And the descriptions . When he enters the building in Santa Monica where he is to meet Harry Jones : I shook the rain off my hat and looked at the building directory . Numbers with names and numbers without names. Plenty of vacancies or plenty of tenants who wished to remain anonymous . Painless dentists , shyster detective agencies , small sick businesses that had crawled there to die , mail order schools that would teach you how to become a railroad clerk or a radio technician or a screen writer — if the postal inspectors didn’t catch up with them first . A nasty building . A building in which the smell of stale cigar butts would be the cleanest odor .
The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed.
The voice was as stiff as a breadstick.
I like the old Los Angeles nostalgia that swirls up from Chandler novels . I like that there were three morning papers to read and somehow I like the idea of striking a match on your thumbnail and , if that doesn’t work , then scratching it on a shoe heel . I like the idealistic detective Philip Marlowe , the real true -to- form tough guy .
He’d never make it in today’s world , though . He’s too sexist . He’s distinctly too this and definitely too that . And his matches wouldn’t strike on his thumb or his shoe even if he did find a place where he could smoke . And he’d have to raise his fee if he wanted to have any chance at all of paying the rent on his Hollywood office .
I haven’t quite yet finished reading the novel this time . We haven’t found Rusty Regan so far or uncovered just what Eddie Mar’s angle is and the cops haven’t found the cold dead body of Harry Jones still sitting in the chair at that nasty building in Santa Monica . I don’t really remember how the story ends . I never remember many of the details . I’d never make it in the detective racket.