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‘The Big Sleep’: The noir classic that defined Los Angeles

by Julia Paskin | Take Two®

"The Big Sleep " by Raymond Chandler Flickr Creative Commons

Before Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made "The Big Sleep" a noir film classic, it was a little novel by Raymond Chandler. Centered around private eye Phillip Marlowe, it's set against the backdrop of pre-World War II Los Angeles.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-K49CUaeto

It ranks among the most highly regarded pieces of fiction ever written about Southern California. That's why it's the first book kicking off Take Two's new summer reading series: The California Canon, a guide to great, local literature.

Every week, David Kipen will share another highlight from our state's literary timeline. He's an L.A. native, book editor, L.A. Times critic-at-large and the founder of the Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights.  

"'The Big Sleep’ and I think Chandler in general have colored Angelenos' perceptions of the city that they live in more than the writing of just about anybody," said Kipen. "And anybody who aspires to be an Angeleno has no business ignoring him."

Hired to get to the bottom of the case 

"The Big Sleep" is about the detective Philip Marlowe who, in the first chapter, calls on General Sternwood — who is this almost dead character, under a blanket in this glass greenhouse, because the life is just ebbing out of him. He has two daughters. Both of them a little bit debauched, one of them much more than the other. The more debauched one is being blackmailed and [General Sternwood] wants Marlowe, the private eye, to get to the bottom of this. 

Private detective Philip Marlowe: 'Shabby yet romantic'

Marlowe is the prototypical L.A. private eye. There had been private eyes before, but Chandler gave it a distinctively Southern California twist. There are all these wonderful moments when you're with him, alone. He's kind of shabby and yet romantic. Underneath all the hard-boiled exterior, he can be hurt. He wants to help, and it doesn't always work out that way.

The Big Sleep

Los Angles 1939: A city at a turning point

L.A. in 1939 was at this kind of turning point. And you can see that in the character of General Sternwood in "The Big Sleep." He is presumably a Civil War general. We don't know if General Sternwood was anywhere near the front lines, but he was a pioneer. He was one of the buccaneers of California — and with oil, made a mint. His daughters represent the thinning of the bloodlines. They were born rich, as opposed to making or stealing it.

One of them who Marlowe becomes a little sweet on — although not as sweet on her as Bogart got on Lauren Bacall in the movie — even so, you get a sense of the second generation. The second generation which is building up Los Angeles, but at the same time, not really keeping faith with the first generation with, in some cases, perfectly reprehensible founders who built this place with their bare hands. 

Author Raymond Chandler 'knew he had great material on his hands'

American thriller writer Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959), center, at a party in Portman Square, London on June 24, 1958. On either side of him are publisher Anthony Blond (1928 - 2008) and Blond's wife Charlotte.
American thriller writer Raymond Chandler (1888 - 1959), center, at a party in Portman Square, London on June 24, 1958. On either side of him are publisher Anthony Blond (1928 - 2008) and Blond's wife Charlotte. Evening Standard/Getty Images

Chandler was not a native Angeleno. Chandler was born in, of all places, Chicago. In later years, he professed to be disillusioned with Los Angeles, which completely obscures the point that he never loved the place. I think as a writer, he knew he had great material on his hands. And he was like Columbus — he thought he had among the first opportunities to plant his flag on it. And he did so beautifully, but never adoringly or blindly. He saw the place's flaws. He exaggerated the place's flaws. 

Marlowe's driving tour of L.A. doubles as a landmark checklist

Chandler uses classic L.A. locations which we would recognize. Whether in their former form or completely obliterated but in the back of your mind, you can still remember what's going on. For example, General Sternwood's mansion is pretty much the Greystone Mansion of Doheny in Beverly Hills.

But in the climactic scene, there's this wonderful moment where his oil fields, the disgusting, smelly, revolting fields on which his great wealth is based, still visible from his beautiful mansion that he's built in the intervening decades — those are the oil fields around La Cienega, just north of the airport. And Marlowe spends so much time driving around that it could be like a kind of checklist. And that's one of the most delightful things that an Angeleno can bring to the reading of Chandler, even though people have been reading from him and stealing from him around the world for decades. 

Quotes edited for brevity and clarity. 

​To hear David Kipen on "The Big Sleep," click on the audio player above. 

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