In The Big Sleep, cyanide poison reflects the fact that grim and shameful deaths are largely reserved for the lower criminal classes in 1930s L.A., while certain “elite” criminals remain untouchable. Cyanide thus highlights the hypocrisy and divide within the criminal world, wherein certain forms of “successful” immorality committed by high-powered individuals are accepted. Mona Mars notably hides out near a cyanide factory that produces the poison for bug “fumigation,” implying cyanide is a death for lesser creatures. Marlowe also notes how grifter Harry Jones dies “like a poisoned rat” when Eddie Mars’s hired assassin Lash Canino laces Jones’s whiskey with cyanide. Mars and Canino are powerful yet deeply immoral men in the criminal world, whereas Jones—despite being a grifter—is ultimately presented as a man with integrity. Jones dies only after lying to Canino to protect a friend, meaning he is not a “rat” at all and in fact possesses clear strength of character. The fact that this does not protect him from a gruesome death—while Mars and Canino emerge from this specific encounter unscathed—highlights the unfairness of “justice” meted out in this world and how, ironically, only extreme criminality is protected. Indeed, the novel does not link death by cyanide with any members of the elite criminal world, as successful racketeers like Mars are protected by their social status and financial resources.
The state authorities also notably use cyanide gas as a form of execution. As Marlowe tells murderer Carol Lundgren, “that’s what they call humane execution in our state now,” referring to cyanide gas. This suggests the authorities also see such lowly criminals as an inconvenience to be exterminated—even as they turn a blind eye to or even work with bigger fish like Eddie Mars. The social immobility of 1930s L.A. means cyanide-related deaths are for the lowly grifters of the city alone.
Cyanide Quotes in The Big Sleep
Carol Lundgren, the boy killer with the limited vocabulary, was out of circulation for a long, long time, even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid. They wouldn’t, because he would take a plea and save the county money. They all do when they don't have the price of a big lawyer.