In Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, a private detective is trying to unravel a blackmailing case for a dying millionaire, General Sternwood. Philip Marlowe, the detective, finds that the case not only involves blackmail, but also homicide. Set and written in 1930’s America, the economic devastation of the Great Depression has a significant influence on the book’s plot, and showcases character’s struggle to retain honor and virtue in a world that revolves around profit-seeking delinquency and organized corruption. Marlowe’s work as a private detective brings him face to face with criminals of every variety, and each corresponds to a piece on the chessboard that appears repeatedly in the story. Marlowe’s symbolic identity is the well-intentioned knight, who represents the shred of chivalry that remains in a society of pawns and crooked kings, and the chess game is his combat against crime in a period of national despondency.
In the heart of the Great Depression, America as a whole is in serious financial turmoil and people have become pessimistic about the future. Money is the main incentive for the actions of several characters that Marlowe deals with throughout the story. When he wonders why Harry Jones and Agnes Lozelle want to blackmail him, Jones replies, “[Agnes is] a grifter, shamus. I'm a grifter. We're all grifters. So we sell each other out for a nickel” (Chandler 168). People have become money-hungry criminals simply because they have nothing left to lose and nowhere else to turn. These characters reflect the cynicism and economic strain that plagued America during the 1930s. Jones and Lozelle symbolize the common pawns that get casually tossed around on society’s chessboard, and show how post-depression culture used crime and vice to develop “the culture of consumption that the American ‘pursuit of happiness’ has become” (Rzepka 698).
Aside from the desperate crooks, Chandler also illustrates a world of darker corruption. Los Angeles is teeming with pornographers, gamblers, schemers, and twisted policemen. Even the newspapers cannot be trusted: “Their accounts of the affair came as close as newspaper stories usually come—as close as Mars is to Saturn” (Chandler 118). The newspapers in the city of Los Angeles show how the people of the city are corrupt. A person uses a newspaper to understand, but in The Big Sleep the newspapers lie about the truth. The deceitfulness of the newspapers is seen when they lie about murders. Geiger had been slain by the Sternwood's chauffeur, Owen Taylor, but the newspapers claimed that a man named Joe Brody, who was a small time criminal, another pawn in the game, was responsible for the murder. Even bigger players, like gambling ring leader Eddie Mars states, “I get them the way they happen, not the way you read them in the papers,” (Chandler 131) even further showing how stories are changed by the police for their benefit and the truth is hidden from the papers, and therefore from the public.