Raymond Chandler’s crime noir novel The Big Sleep deals with the dark underbelly of L.A. society. As private detective Philip Marlowe digs ever deeper into this grim world to find out who is blackmailing one of his clients, he becomes increasingly disgusted with what he uncovers. This is not only because of the illegal activities he finds embedded throughout every level of society, but also because of all the supposedly respectable figures he discovers are involved in these activities. The novel implicates senior public figures and social organizations in L.A.’s criminal underworld, including rich businessmen, the police, and the newspapers, who have not only turned a blind eye to such corruption, but have become active participants in it. With the absence of honest leaders, corruption has become so entrenched that it operates in plain sight, with criminal activity occurring even on the “main drag” of town. Through Marlowe’s investigations, The Big Sleep seeks to illustrate the extent of the moral decay in modern American life as the product of a lack of personal responsibility and integrity.
Marlowe notes repeatedly that even those at the top of society are indicated in the city’s shady underworld, regardless of the ways in which they may seek to wash their hands of it; wealth does not equal respectability. This is illustrated by Marlowe’s first meeting Mrs. Regan, his wealthy client’s beautiful daughter. Marlowe notes, “The drapes lay in heavy ivory folds beside her feet” as she “looked out [the window], towards the quiet darkish foothills.” Mrs. Regan appears physically distant from the grim oilfields below as she sits in her “ivory” upper sitting room. This early symbolism of a corrupt individual in a pristine, pure environment far from the dirt below lays the groundwork for later revelations that condemn Mrs. Regan’s character—namely, that she drinks too much, gambles other people’s money, and has even covered up the murder of her husband Rusty.
Later, Marlowe runs into his client’s younger daughter, Carmen Sternwood, at the home of pornographic photographer Arthur Geiger, whose murder Carmen had witnessed the night before while naked and intoxicated. Describing her as a “pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it,” Marlowe does not see Carmen’s impropriety as her failure alone, but also that of the responsible figures in her life who are not guiding her effectively. For example, District Attorney Taggart Wilde, an influential friend of General Sternwood, keeps the supposedly respectable family’s name out of the newspapers after Geiger’s murder. Despite doing do, he notes Carmen “ought not to be running around loose,” adding “I blame the old man for that.” Here, Chandler draws a parallel to the fact society’s leaders have neglected their responsibilities, including Wilde himself for covering up the family’s misdeeds.
Marlowe later uses the same wording, admonishing Mrs. Regan for allowing Carmen to “run around loose,” even though she knows her sister is mentally unwell and violent. Marlowe’s accusation further underlines these parallel responsibilities toward family members and society: without clear guidance and accountability, society will tend toward self-serving indecency, moral corruption, and decay.
Only a thin veil keeps such immoral activity out of view from wider society, Marlowe realizes, and the novel emphasizes that those tasked with the city’s wellbeing, primarily the police, are often to blame. When Marlowe describes Geiger’s pornography outlet at the center of his blackmailing case to Wilde, for instance, he asserts that the police are neglecting their duties by “allowing” the illegal store to run in the open. His reference to the police’s “own reasons” for this negligence directly implicates the cops in the city’s lawlessness. In this way, the novel argues that modern America’s slip into moral degradation has much to do with the lack of effective law enforcement. Marlowe further tells Wilde the police “hide” such illegal activity “every other day, to oblige their friends or anybody with a little pull.” He alleges that these public servants subvert the law according to their own motivations and for their own benefit. Thus, Chandler shows how those with the power to stamp out criminality are implicit in society’s lawlessness.
The free press is another body charged with standing for truth and justice—yet, in the novel, it instead publishes lies, leaving society’s corruption unchallenged. Marlowe reads “all three of the morning papers” the day after his meeting with Wilde. The papers keep the Sternwoods out of the story, and praise the police for arresting the murderer, even though Marlowe was the one who had detained the suspect before the police even knew there was a murder. Marlowe’s sneering judgment of the morning papers’ lies emphasizes this is not a one-time cover-up, but an institutional failure. The papers also mention that “There would be no inquest,” according to Marlowe, presumably given the high-ranking names involved in the messy case. Through this, Chandler shows that without a morally upright press, the truth of modern society’s corruption cannot be uncovered and addressed.
The Big Sleep thus presents a disturbing vision of American society falling ever deeper into moral decay, and Chandler points the finger of blame squarely at those tasked with upholding American decency. Society has gone wayward because of the lack of oversight and enforcement among families, journalists, the police, and by extension, the government at large. Everyone in the story, across all strata of society, has dirt on their hands, suggesting that few are left to stand up to protect proper American values.
The Corruption of Society ThemeTracker
The Corruption of Society Quotes in The Big Sleep
Over the entrance doors … 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 … 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.
He didn’t know the right people. That’s all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country.
A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick.
I know you, Mr. Mars. The Cypress Club at Las Olindas. Flash gambling for flash people. The local law in your pocket and a wellgreased line into L.A. In other words, protection.
“What?” the blonde yelped. “You sit there and try to tell us Mr. Geiger ran that kind of business right down on the main drag? You’re nuts!” I leered at her politely. “Sure I do. Everybody knows the racket exists. Hollywood's made to order for it. If a thing like that has to exist, then right out on the street is where all practical coppers want it to exist. For the same reason they favor red light districts. They know where to flush the game when they want to.”
I’m kind of glad that Taylor kid went off the pier. I’d hate to have to help send him to the deathhouse for rubbing that skunk.
“It’s obvious to anybody with eyes that that store is just a front for something. But the Hollywood police allowed it to operate, for their own reasons. I dare say the Grand Jury would like to know what those reasons are.” Wilde grinned. He said: “Grand Juries do ask those embarrassing questions sometimes—in a rather vain effort to find out just why cities are run as they are run.”
Cops get very large and emphatic when an outsider tries to hide anything, but they do the same things themselves every other day, to oblige their friends or anybody with a little pull.
I’ve done all my office permits—and maybe a good deal more—to save the old man from grief. But in the long run it can’t be done. Those girls of his are bound certain to hook up with something that can't be hushed, especially that little blonde brat. They ought not to be running around loose. I blame the old man for that.
Eddie Mars would have been very unlikely to involve himself in a double murder just because another man had gone to town with the blonde he was not even living with … If there had been a lot of money involved, that would be different. But fifteen grand wouldn't be a lot of money to Eddie Mars. He was no two-bit chiseler like Brody.
“We’re his blood. That’s the hell of it.” She stared at me in the mirror with deep, distant eyes. “I don’t want him to die despising his own blood. It was always wild blood, but it wasn’t always rotten blood.”
You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.
Once outside the law you’re all the way outside. You think he’s just a gambler. I think he’s a pornographer, a blackmailer, a hot car broker, a killer by remote control, and a suborner of crooked cops. He’s whatever looks good to him, whatever has the cabbage pinned to it. Don’t try to sell me on any high-souled racketeers. They don’t come in that pattern.
Being a copper I like to see the law win. I'd like to see the flashy well-dressed mugs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred hard guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That’s what I’d like. You and me both lived too long to think I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don’t run our country that way.
Me, I was part of the nastiness now … But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting.