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The Big Sleep | Context

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Detective Fiction

Together with other writing by Chandler, such as his influential 1944 essay "The Simple Art of Murder," The Big Sleep fundamentally reshaped modern detective fiction. Dating from the 19th century, detective fiction arose from the Gothic movement, with which it shares some characteristics and with which it overlapped for some time. Both genres often emphasize a central mystery, but the Gothic novel explores the emotional implications of those mysteries, especially the darker emotions. In contrast, detective fiction follows the action of a detective who seeks to solve the crime. Detective fiction emphasizes the rational and social implications of a mystery, thus resolving the Gothic emphasis on the spiritual and the emotional through humanity's rational and social capacity.

The Reasoned Detective

American writer Edgar Allan Poe is credited with writing the first detective story, "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), in which detective Auguste Dupin uses methodical reasoning to solve the mystery. Dupin established the model of the rational detective, later reincarnated by British writer Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in A Study in Scarlet (1887). Holmes not only reasons his way through cases but often expounds on the nature of thinking. Many British mystery novels by writers such as Doyle or Dorothy Sayers work through the tension established by a setting and characters that evoke mysterious, supernatural feelings and a single, eccentric character who relies on reason to reveal the clues to the crime's resolution.

The Hard-Boiled Detective

As Chandler notes in "The Simple Art of Murder," focusing on the rational side of crime and mystery is unrealistic. It yields formulaic stories divorced from reality. The hard-boiled detective genre developed partially in response to this tendency. Hard-boiled is a term that differentiates a character like Philip Marlowe or American author Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade from a Sherlock Holmes, an Auguste Dupin, or a Hercule Poirot (created by English novelist Agatha Christie). The latter are men of refinement and taste, well-educated men who are quiet but keenly observant. The former are familiar with barrooms and street fights. They can take a hit as well as give one. They are likely to carry weapons and just as likely to use them. They are equally observant but more likely to notice people and their behavior than "clues." And, perhaps most importantly, they are vulnerable—to hardship, to oppression, and to love.

The hard-boiled detective genre rejected murder as mental mystery and returned it to its complicated social context, which created criminals who murder due to their circumstances rather than psychopathic tendencies. In doing so, Chandler also redefined the genre's hero, the hard-boiled detective himself, whom Chandler characterizes as a sort of everyman with a keenly developed sense of awareness and an unusual understanding of honor.

The hard-boiled detective story had other roots as well. Published in pulp magazines (pulp referred to the low quality of paper on which the magazines were printed), hard-boiled stories drew on adventure fiction and the western. Their detective heroes were closer to gunslingers than to the talking heads of classic detective fiction. They focused less on reason and more on common sense. Hard-boiled detective fiction also incorporates elements of naturalism, a literary movement focusing on urban settings, the effects of environment on character, and experiences of the lower and criminal classes.

Historians credit Dashiell Hammett with initiating the hard-boiled detective genre with his 1929 Black Mask story "Fly Paper." However, it is Chandler, with the figure of Philip Marlowe, who gave the subgenre its archetypical figure, and in "The Simple Art of Murder" its philosophical justification. Like many hard-boiled detectives who followed him, Marlowe is wise-cracking, hard-drinking, and tough. Chandler envisioned this detective as a man like the Greek philosopher Diogenes, but instead of shining his lamp in the darkness looking for goodness in humanity, Chandler's hero is "in search of a hidden truth." Through his stories and novels, Chandler implies that the truth his hero seeks is less about "whodunit" and more about people's characters, even the essence of life itself.

Chandler's Influence

Beyond Chandler's seven novels featuring Marlowe, other authors expanded on the character in their own Marlowe stories. American detective-fiction writer Robert Parker wrote his dissertation in part on Chandler and modeled his detective, Spenser, after Marlowe. Parker completed Poodle Springs (1989), a novel Chandler left unfinished when he died, and wrote a sequel, Perchance to Dream (1991). Irish novelist John Banville published The Black-Eyed Blonde, a 2014 novel with a title pulled from a list of possible titles that Chandler kept. American detective-fiction writer Walter Mosley credits aspects of Chandler's writing with sparking his own literary career. American writer Piri Thomas titled his memoir of growing up in Spanish Harlem Down These Mean Streets, a phrase borrowed from a line in "The Simple Art of Murder" (1950). Chandler's fiction has been adapted extensively for radio and film, and even into a video game.

Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s

Raymond Chandler, born in the United States and educated in England, moved permanently to the United States in 1912, settling in Los Angeles in 1913. Philip Marlowe's familiarity with the city is based on Chandler's knowledge of Los Angeles during two decades of its growth and transformation. Chandler moved often: he lived in dozens of different places in Los Angeles, a useful metaphor for the city's restlessness during these times. His fiction is so bound up with the city that tours of Chandler's Los Angeles are available to visitors, and entire books have been published exploring the links.

Four factors define Los Angeles during this period:

  • About 725,000 people lived in Los Angeles when Chandler arrived. By 1930 the population reached 1,238,048, and Los Angeles kept growing. This growth meant the city was made up of people from somewhere else—like Chandler—who moved west, many chasing a dream.
  • Film production companies moved to Los Angeles early in the 20th century and quickly took advantage of the climate to dominate the industry. By 1920 80 percent of the world's movies were filmed in Los Angeles.
  • Oil was discovered in Los Angeles in 1892. Within five years there were 500 oil wells in the city itself. Oil invited considerable investment, leading to newly acquired fortunes and the city's rapid growth.
  • Finally, Los Angeles was one of the first cities designed with the car in mind. To live in Los Angeles is to drive, sometimes long and restless distances. These factors often intersected and built on one another: oil fortunes were invested in film, for example, and people who moved to Los Angeles to buy homes they couldn't afford elsewhere often erected oil rigs on their lawns. Oil money built roads and the automobile culture. Chandler comments on these aspects of Los Angeles in his fiction, often using Philip Marlowe to express a love-hate relationship with the city.

Chandler and the Oil Industry

Oil has a long history in California: Spanish explorers noted indigenous people using pitch leaking from the ground to seal canoes as early as 1543. The first working oil well in California was drilled in 1865 and the first in southern California in 1892. By 1897 there were 500 wells in Los Angeles. Edward L. Doheny, who drilled the first well, turned to drilling for oil only after trying to make his fortune mining silver and gold. He became a millionaire. He was also involved in politics and was part of the Teapot Dome Scandal, a 1921–22 political controversy involving the federal government's granting of individual rights to petroleum reserves. In the 1920s oil was to southern California what gold had been to the northern part of the state. It drew people from all over, generating immense wealth—and equally immense corruption. As American writer Carey McWilliams wrote in Southern California, An Island on the Land, "the decade was one long drunken orgy."

Although Chandler did not seek out his connection with the oil industry, it played a major role in his life and in The Big Sleep. In the early 1920s, through a friend's connections, Chandler got a job at Dabney Oil Syndicate. This job gave Chandler direct experience with several themes that figure prominently in his fiction. The first of these is wealth. At this time the Los Angeles area produced one fifth of all the oil in the world. In part because of his position, Chandler also experienced corruption directly and extensively. He received multiple promotions, one of these at a time when the syndicate's auditor was arrested for embezzlement. The oil industry gave Chandler extensive experience in managing a business and in some aspects of the law, as he was engaged in numerous lawsuits. At first Chandler did well, but eventually the stress of the job got to him. He started drinking heavily and was fired.

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