The Big Sleep revolves around the corruption and injustices running rampant in Los Angeles. Still, the ways Chandler demonstrates the pursuit for justice make it a practical and influential work of literature. The persisting corruption and total disregard for the law in The Big Sleep is reflected mainly in the wealthy who use their money to get themselves out of trouble. The police force is a tool used by the rich like Eddie Mars, who uses it to avoid the consequences of his illegal activities. Vivian Reagan goes as far as to admit they live in a “rotten crime-ridden country” where knowing the right people keeps one out of jail (Chandler 47). Marlowe tries to hold on to his principles, but even he makes back-handed deals not to bring the corruption he knows to be true to light. Murder, the highest form of injustice, is rampant in the novel, as seen in the murders of Rusty Reagan, Joe Brody, Lash Canino, Geiger, and others. This world is fundamentally corrupt, both individually and systematically.
However, there is an apparent pursuit for justice and honor depicted in this novel. 1) Chandler depicts the sense of the city of Los Angeles craving justice as there are police forces and private investigators in the city. 2) Marlowe remains true to himself and his work ethic when he rejects sexual advances from the daughters of his client. He also rejects the $15,000 bribe by Vivian to protect her even more corrupt and evil sister. 3) There is a quest for justice for the murders in the novels. General Sternwood expresses his worry for his missing friend to Marlowe, who starts to try and find him later in the book. Marlow tries to get to the root of Gieger’s and Taylor’s murders and facilitates the arrest of Lundgren for Brody’s murder. 4) The novel prescribes vigilante justice in the form of friends or lovers who try to find justice for their loved ones, albeit in an illegal manner. 5) Chandler uses minor characters to help the main ones in their quest for justice. 6) The novel portrays the knight’s symbolism for justice.
The Big Sleep represents a world of money-hungry and corrupt people. In this novel, characters routinely manipulate each other for their gain. This is summed up by small-time criminal Harry Jones, who says to Marlowe, “We’re all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel.” However, there’s justice depicted in the novel’s plot in the search for fairness after the murder of Gieger and the disappearance of Rusty Reagan. Marlowe is on a quest for justice for his client, serving him with honor and loyalty despite financial and sexual temptations and threats of physical harm. This pursuit of justice in the novel is shown in the following ways.
People’s search for justice in the city of Los Angeles is seen in the hiring of Private Investigators and in seeking their police force. At the beginning of the novel, General Sternwood searches for justice for his daughters. He is being blackmailed by Arthur Gwynn Geiger and thus hires private investigator Philip Marlowe on the recommendation of his friend, the Attorney General. The General’s main point is that he is being blackmailed again. The first time was by a man called Joe Brody, whom he paid off to leave his daughter Carmen alone. The recent blackmail from Geiger was in the form of a note with $5,000 in gambling I.O.U.s signed by Carmen. Also seen in the novel is how the police force is sought out usually to get justice for criminal activities. When Eddie Mars suspected foul play in Gieger’s house after his disappearance, he insisted on having the police investigate. Also, Lundgren, after being chased down by Marlowe, is arrested and charged with Brody’s murder.
Los Angeles has bodies in place to mete out punishment and preserve law and order within the city. The police force also exists, which, when called upon, as in the case of Lundgren, delivers justice. The General also served in the army during the Irish Revolution, hence his title. If justice can’t be found by these means, the city has private investigators such as Philip Marlowe to aid the citizens in their quest. These private investigators could work individually or with the existing law enforcement, though Marlowe tends not to involve himself with the police. There also exists the office of the district attorney and the attorney general, whose role is to represent the state in criminal judicial proceedings. Moreover, the city also has the media, in this case, the newspaper, whose role in society, among others, is to protect and inform the public about wrongdoings.
The novel portrays justice and honor in the character of Philip Marlowe. General Sternwood hires him to find out why Geiger is blackmailing him, charging only $25 a day and expenses. He also seeks to help Sternwood find Rusty Reagan before being asked to, and he solves both cases by the end of the novel. Marlowe does this alone without help from the law enforcement, suspecting them of being dishonorable in their dealings. Moreover, Marlowe states that he works independently and not for the law. Despite finding Vivian’s legs beautiful and regarding the woman to be trouble, he fends off sexual advances from both her and her sister, a trait of an honorable man with great work ethics. Furthermore, regardless of not being a fan of Joe Brody, he chases down his killer and brings him to justice.
Marlowe is an honorable and honest detective who takes his job seriously. He got referred to Sternwood by the district attorney Taggart Wilde, revealing that Marlowe continued to be respected at his former workplace despite being fired for insubordination. He looks to uncover the whole story rather than doing just what is acceptable for a paycheck. He lives rather poorly, paid only twenty-five dollars a day, but seems innately driven towards discovering the truth. He is a stand-up guy because he works independently since the police in Chandler’s world are easily corruptible. He remains loyal to his clients even at the cost of his safety and personal gains, as shown in his rejection of the sexual advances from both Carmen (Chandler 138) and Vivian, his client’s daughters. Furthermore, he maintains his sense of compassion when dealing with Sternwood, who is sick and dying. He asks Ohls not to disclose Owen’s death to Sternwood as it might cause his health to worsen (Chandler 41). He demonstrates a high moral compass that most of the characters in the novel seem to lack.
There is a pursuit of justice for the murders in the novel. Marlowe seems keen to uncover the truth about the murder of Arthur Geiger. He follows suspects connected to the murder, such as Joe Brody, and questions them. He inquired about the business Joe had with Geiger’s books and warned him of Eddie Mars and Carmen Reagan lying about the prime suspect in Gieger’s murder. Because of this, Lundgren shoots and kills Brody, thinking that he killed Geiger (Chandler 86). However, Marlowe chases him down and gets him arrested. He later discovers that the Sternwood’s driver Taylor was the killer, having murdered Geiger over Carmen (Chandler 95). Furthermore, Marlowe gets obsessed about how Taylor died, but the book keeps his murder unresolved. At the end of the novel, Marlowe finally realizes that Carmen killed her brother-in-law Rusty Regan and makes her sister Vivian get help for her psychotic sister (Chandler 202).
The knighthood shown by Marlowe in the novel assures that he would not sit by while injustice occurs. He would do his absolute best to get to the bottom of the unfairness he witnesses. Solving Geiger’s murder, for example, was not part of his job description, but he searched high and low until he found the killer. He seems to be also concerned with Eddie Mars and his pals at the police force which would get him reprieve for his actions and deems it unfair. Similarly, Lundgren, determined to get justice for the death of his former lover Geiger, mistakenly shot and killed Joe Brody. He then gets arrested by law enforcement, a deserving punishment for this heinous crime. After seeking and finding Carmen behind Rusty’s disappearance, Marlow makes sure that although she doesn’t get apprehended for her crimes, her sister Vivian takes her to an institution where she would be safe.
Moreover, Chandler illustrates a kind of vigilante justice in the novel. When the body of the Sternwood’s chauffeur, Owen Taylor, is found in the Pacific Ocean, it is unclear whether his death was a murder or a suicide. Later on, Marlowe discovers that Taylor was in love with Carmen Sternwood (Chandler 82) and that he murdered Arthur Geiger in retaliation for the naughty pictures of Carmen that Geiger had taken. Furthermore, Brody is also in possession of these pictures. When Marlowe retrieves these pictures from him, Brody is killed by Carol Lundgren. Geiger’s homosexual lover, Lundgren, kills Brody because he believes Brody killed Geiger and is arrested for this crime (Chandler 86).
Vigilantism, while a method for getting justice, is illegal due to the moral relativism of self-perception rather than a more comprehensive social agreement. Vigilante justice often portrays the actions of an individual or a group of people who enforce the law but have no legal authority to do so. In this case, Taylor and Lundgren, both civilians with no legal authority but scorned by lawbreakers, or the people they perceived harming their beloved ones, meted out justice by killing the perpetrators. Taylor was concerned for Carmen, a girl he believed himself in love with, while Lundgren was mourning the death of his former lover Geiger. Vigilantes, however, sometimes pay the ultimate price during their pursuits for revenge, for example, how Lundgren got arrested for murdering Joe Brody.
The novel portrays how other minor characters are willing to be of service when it comes to helping justice move along. During Marlowe’s search for Gieger, he came across a bookstore and found a small dark woman at the desk. He inquired if she could describe Geiger’s features. The woman, hesitant at first to tell a stranger (Chandler 23), quickly changed her mind after discovering Marlowe’s nature of work. She became more willing to describe Geiger when she thought it would assist in the search for truth and justice. In another instance, Marlowe is detained by Eddie Mars and guarded by his estranged wife, Mona Grant. Initially, she is naïve and gullible, refusing to believe Marlowe when he tells her Mars kills people (Chandler 172). Still, she finally lets him escape and helps him kill Canino by creating a diversion.
It is imperative to help people in their pursuit of justice. This can be done by not withholding information needed by law enforcement on the whereabouts of perpetrators of injustice, as is illustrated by the short librarian. She was not willing to give information to a stranger on the off chance of leading to an atrocity committed towards Geiger. However, once she learned that Marlowe was a detective with a sheriff badge, she was willing to help law enforcement in any way she could by answering his questions to the best of her ability. This is also seen in the case of Mona, where after learning of her husband’s crimes, she helped Marlowe run away to the best of her ability.
Furthermore, Chandler uses the symbol of a knight to portray justice. The novel begins with Marlowe walking into his client’s home and noticing a piece of stained glass in the Sternwood mansion (Chandler 1). The stained glass depicts a knight trying to release a damsel in distress from a tree she is tied to. This image caused him to think that if he lived in the mansion, he would eventually have to climb up into the stained glass to help the knight, as he didn’t seem to be making any progress. In another instance, Marlowe was playing chess when Carmen Sternwood visited him. He reversed a move he made with a knight, commenting to himself that knights had no meaning in the game (Chandler 139). At the end of the novel, he spotted the same glass panel in the Sternwood mansion and noted again to himself that the knight still wasn’t getting anywhere with the damsel (Chandler 185).
Marlowe was often referred to as a soldier by other characters. This symbolism using the knight by Chandler was to refer to detective Philip Marlowe, especially his moral compass and desire to help the ones in need. During his chess game, Marlowe thought of how the wealthy got away with criminal activities and thought that people who stood for justice were not powerful enough to swing the game of life and death that was happening in Los Angeles, the unfairness of it all. In the end, he accepts that fighting the good fight and advocating for justice doesn’t bring about a positive change immediately to society and the battle for fairness seems to be never-ending when he notes that the knight still hasn’t gotten the damsel in the stained glass free.
Based on the evidence presented, it is clear that although The Big Sleep depicts a lot of corruption and injustice in its literary world, the author, Raymond Chandler, sought to show a transparent pursuit for justice as well. In summary, this was done by the honest and morally upright character Philip Marlowe who put his work ethics above all else. Chandler’s symbol for Marlowe portrayed him as a knight who tries to help those in need. Moreover, it was illustrated by other minor characters who supported the pursuit of truth and fairness by assisting the main characters as best as they could. Most importantly, this search for justice was mainly depicted in the novel’s plot, following the murders of Geiger, Rusty, Taylor, Brody, and others.
Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. Penguin Books, 2011.