California Bad Dreaming

The Big Sleep is set in Chandler's resident state of California - in the city of Los Angeles and the surrounding area. To an extent this tale of criminality, corruption and murder could be set in any city in America. As Marlowe says about the police covering up the blackmail racket, "They come a dime a dozen in any big city. 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." And Captain Gregory complains that the police will never stop guys like Eddie Mars. "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." Even Vivian Regan remarks of Taylor's police record, "He didn't know the right people. That's all a police record means in this rotten crime-ridden country."

However, the novel owes its conception, as well as much of its power to shed light on twentieth century America to the very fact of its California setting. Duncan Campbell describes California as "a state that seems at once both America squared and yet very specifically a country of its own." And, writes Richard Rodriguez, "California has for so long played America's America. The end of the road. Or a second shot at the future." A second shot at the future is how California has liked to be seen throughout the last hundred years, and particularly in the first half of the twentieth century: a place where the sun always shines, literally and figuratively. People have been drawn to the state by the climate, to recover from illness, to indulge in the myriad new religions and philosophies that have grown up there, to live the American dream in all its variety and optimism. And at the heart of California lies Los Angeles and Hollywood - the place where dreams come true everyday on studio lots. Over the years it has attracted writers, artists and performers who's work has both reflected and helped to create the California dream.

However, for such a sunshine state, it is notable that for much of The Big Sleep, it is raining. Chandler is subverting the rose-tinted view of the location as peddled to the outside world, and throughout the novel, the images that linger are ones of the corruption and shabbiness that permeates life behind the façade of Californian optimism. In this 'Tinseltown', even the architecture is suspect: when Marlowe tries to shoulder Geiger's front door, he succeeds only in hurting himself - "About the only part of a California house you can't put your foot through is the front door." At the other end of the spectrum, he notes that the D.A.'s house "was one of those solid old- fashioned houses which it used to be the thing to move bodily to new locations as the city grew westward." Even the Los Angelians are moving to escape the reality that Los Angeles is becoming.

Marlowe's world is one where pornographers and gamblers operate under the protection of crooked policemen. Says Marlowe of Geiger's store, "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." The reason is that "if a thing like that has to exist, then right on the street is where all practical coppers want it to exist. For the same reason they favour red-light districts. They know where to flush the game when they want to." Meanwhile, the city harbours illicit homosexuality and seems full of young women using their sexuality to ruin men - "you have to hold your teeth clamped around Hollywood to keep from chewing on stray blondes." And wealthy men like Sternwood can buy immunity from prosecution and damaging publicity. Nearly everyone in The Big Sleep is, to a greater or lesser extent, marred by the taint of corruption. Mona Mars tries to defend her husband from Marlowe's charges, but he will have none of it: "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... Don't try to sell me on any high-souled racketeers, They don't come in that pattern." And even the diminutive and harmless Harry Jones claims that he "used to do a little liquor-running... A tough racket... Riding the scout car with a gun in your lap and a wad on your hip that would choke a coal chute. Plenty of times we paid off four sets of law before we hit Beverly Hills. A tough racket."

In The Little Sister (1949), Chandler (via Marlowe) describes Los Angeles as "A big hard-boiled city with no more personality than a paper cup," and the image of degradation lurking beneath a plastic veneer has been a recurring theme in American literature and cinema - in everything from James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential to the Robert Altman film Short Cuts (which was in fact transplanted to L.A. from Raymond Carver's original material).

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