Your name’s Marlowe. You’re a private detective.
The year is 1939, the city is Los Angeles, and you’re about to embark on one of the most famous murder mysteries in history: The Big Sleep.
The best part of your hard-boiled adventures? The Los Angeles locations you refer to are all real. Oh, sure, you use fake street names and addresses, but your descriptions are so vivid and precise that if one were take the time to look, one could tell exactly what you’re referring to and retrace your steps.
Which is just what I did.
But sorry, Marlowe – I’m hogging the floor and I know how much you like to talk. So take it away – and let’s see what still remains of your 1930s noir-soaked Los Angeles…
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.
I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be.
I was calling on four million dollars.
Specifically, you’ve been called to the palatial estate of one General Sternwood, a rich oil baron with two wild daughters, Carmen and Vivian. This is widely believed to be based on Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, a 55-room, 46,000 square-foot Tudor Revival mansion built in 1928 by oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny as a gift to his son. Marlowe’s descriptions of the property are ridiculously spot-on…
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high…A free staircase, tile-paved, rose to a gallery…
There were French doors at the back of the hall…
Beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage…Beyond them a large greenhouse with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills.
[At the greenhouse,] the butler opened a door for me and stood aside…
Here, you meet General Sternwood, an old and obviously dying man…with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, who wants to hire you. It seems that one A. G. Geiger, owner of a rare books store in Hollywood, is trying to blackmail him over recent scandalous indiscretions by his daughter Carmen that he has evidence of.
You take the case. Before heading down to Geiger’s bookshop, you make a slight detour to do a little research on rare books…
I drove down to the Hollywood public library and did a little superficial research in a stuffy volume called Famous First Editions. Half an hour of it made me need my lunch.
Pictured above is the old Hollywood library, located at the northwest corner of Hollywood Blvd and Ivar. Sadly, it’s long gone:
A library has occupied this spot since 1907, when original Hollywood developer Daeida Beveridge donated land for a Carnegie-funded building.
In the early 1920s, the library’s collection had outgrown the building, and a new $100,000 Spanish-style library was built in its place. The original building was moved to West Hollywood, where it was later demolished.
From the library, you head over to Geiger’s: A. G. Geiger’s place was a store frontage on the north side of the boulevard near Las Palmas.
A building entrance adjoined it on one side…
…and on the other was a glittering credit jewelry establishment. The entrance door was set far back in the middle and there was a copper trim on the windows, which were backed with Chinese screens, so I couldn’t see into the store.
From the detailed descriptions in the book, it’s almost definite that Geiger’s shop was set at The Outpost Building, located on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard (“the boulevard”) at the corner of Las Palmas. Here it is in 1935:
Over the years, numerous show biz-related offices have been located in the building, and it was even featured in Pretty Woman. If you want to take a trip back to Marlowe’s era, just step into the lobby…
…and you’ll immediately feel like you’ve stepped onto a noir movie set…
Complete with period-looking tailor shop in the rear…
…and a vintage shoeshine stand to one side.
The shoeshine stand is the real deal, opened in 1955 by Kermit Young and in continuous operation ever since.
Hanging out in Geiger’s bookstore, you instantly notice some unusual goings-on. For one, the female clerk at the counter doesn’t seem to recognize any of the rare books you make reference to. Then, strangely, nervous-looking men keep coming in, receiving parcels from the back room, then leaving in a hurry. You decide to follow one of them.
I got to my feet, tipped my hat to the blonde and went out after him. He walked west, swinging his cane in a small tight arc just above his right shoe. He was easy to follow.
We went a block and a half.
At the Highland Avenue traffic signal I pulled up beside him and let him see me. He gave me a casual, then a suddenly sharpened side glance, and quickly turned away.
We crossed Highland with the green light and made another block. He stretched his long legs and had twenty yards on me at the corner. He turned right.
Today, turning right is a bit of a problem, as the Hollywood & Highland Center is now in your way:
Looking at an overhead map, you can see that the street Marlowe would have turned onto, most likely Orchid, was built over…
However, if you go up Highland and swing through the parking garage…
You’ll find a stub of old Orchid Avenue still alive hidden just behind…
…with a number of buildings that would’ve been around in Marlowe’s time.
Resuming the chase: A hundred feet up the hill…
…he stopped and hooked his cane over his arm and fumbled a leather cigarette case out of an inner pocket. He put a cigarette in his mouth, dropped his match, looked back when he picked it up, saw me watching him from the corner, and straightened up as if somebody had booted him from behind. He almost raised dust going up the block, walking with long gawky strides and jabbing his cane into the sidewalk. He turned left again.
He had at least half a block on me when I reached the place where he had turned…This was a narrow tree-lined street with a retaining wall on one side and three bungalow courts on the other.
Here, you see the customer nervously discard his parcel and flee. You open it and find a book full of smutty pictures – Geiger is operating a pornography lending library, an illegal activity at the time. But how does this tie in to Sternwood’s daughter? Time to dig up a description of Geiger from fellow bookstore owners in the area.
The first [bookstore] I came to was on the north side, a large lower floor devoted to stationery and office supplies, a mass of books on the mezzanine. It didn’t look the right place.
Marlowe is almost definitely referencing the now defunct Pickwick Bookshop, located just down the street from the Outpost Building.
Continuously in operation as a bookstore from 1931-1995, it became Pickwick in 1938 when it was purchased by a Russian immigrant named Louis Epstein. Traces of the bookstore’s facade have managed to survive on the upper levels:
I crossed the street and walked two blocks east to the other [bookstore]. This was more like it, a narrowed cluttered little shop stacked with books from floor to ceiling and four or five browsers taking their time putting thumb marks on the new jackets.
Here, Marlowe is most likely referring to what was once the Hollywood Book Store, located across the street at 6760 Hollywood Blvd (and clearly stating the author’s preference). Alas, this is no more:
Here, the clerk gives you a description of Geiger: “Medium height, fattish. Would weigh about a hundred and sixty pounds. Fat face, Charlie Chan moustache, thick soft neck. Soft all over. Well dressed, goes without a hat, affects a knowledge of antiques and hasn’t any. Oh yes. His left eye is glass.”
You head back to Geiger’s store to wait for him to appear: My car was on a side street pointing at the boulevard almost opposite Geiger’s store…
Rain filled the gutters and splashed knee-high off the sidewalk. Big cops in slickers that shone like gun barrels had a lot of fun carrying giggling girls across the bad places.
[Geiger] showed about four o’clock. A cream-colored coupe stopped in front of the store…The coupe went west on the boulevard, which forced me to make a left turn and a lot of enemies…
I was two blocks behind the coupe before I got in the groove.
I caught sight of him two or three times and then made him turning north into Laurel Canyon Drive.
Halfway up the grade he turned left and took a curving ribbon of wet concrete which was called Laverne Terrace [from the description, a dead ringer for the very real Gould Avenue].
It was a narrow street with a high bank on one side…
…and a scattering of cabin-like houses built down the slope on the other side, so that their roofs were not very much above road level.
You stop and watch as Geiger enters his house…but which is it? Though there are several homes along the block that potentially fit the time period…
…none match the exact description.
Waiting outside the house, you suddenly see Carmen Sternwood enter. Then – two gunshots and a scream. You rush inside to find Carmen drugged and naked, Geiger dead, and someone fleeing out the back steps. Looking to help your client, you bring Carmen home and return, only to discover Geiger’s body gone.
The next morning, you get a call from the Chief Investigator at the DA’s office, Bernie Ohls, who knows you’ve been working for the Sternwoods. No mention is made of Geiger. Instead, he’s calling because a Buick belonging to the Sternwoods has washed up off the Malibu pier with a body in it, and he thought you should know.
You head down to the Hall of Justice to meet Ohls. Built in 1925, the Beaux Arts Hall of Justice is the oldest building in the Civic Center plaza and was recently given a $231-million dollar restoration to repair damage from the 1994 earthquake.
[From the Hall of Justice,] it was thirty miles to Lido [Malibu, in Marlowe’s world] on the coast highway, the first ten of them through traffic. Ohls made the run in three quarters of an hour.
At the end of that time we skidded to a stop in front of a faded stucco arch and I took my feet out of the floorboards and we got out.
A long pier railed with white two-by-fours stretched seaward from the arch. A knot of people leaned out at the far end and a motorcycle officer stood under the arch keeping another group of people from going out on the pier.
You recognize the dead man in the car as the Sternwood’s chauffeur. What the hell is going on?
So far, Geiger’s death still hasn’t been discovered. You head back to his bookstore to see what’s happening. The woman working the desk is acting mighty suspicious, but claims Geiger has just gone out of town.
I went out of the store and west on the boulevard to the corner and north on the street to the alley which ran behind the stores.
A small black truck with wire sides and no lettering on it was backed up to Geiger’s place, [with workers loading boxes into it].
It appears that someone is stealing Geiger’s collection of illicit material to take over his business. You decide to follow the truck.
[The truck] turned left out of the alley. We did the same…I saw the truck two blocks away when we got to Franklin. We had it in sight to Vine…
…and across Vine and all the way to Western.
There was a lot of traffic and the freshfaced [driver] tailed from too far back. I was telling him about that without mincing words when the truck, now far ahead, turned north again. The street at which it turned was called Brittany Place. Two blocks up, Brittany Place swung to the east and met Randall Place in a tongue of land on which there was a white apartment house…
In reality, Brittany Place doesn’t exist, but if you look on a map, it’s pretty clear the intersection Marlowe is referring to is the corner of North Edgemont and North Kenmore, which does indeed resemble a “tongue of land.”
Today, the area mostly consists of houses, so no white apartment to be found.
At the apartment, you find the books being moved into an apartment belonging to one Joe Brody. You head to your office to sort things out.
The cab took me downtown…to my office building. I had a room and a half on the seventh floor at the back.
Marlowe famously worked on the seventh floor of the “Cahuenga Building” – actually the former Security Bank Building at the corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga. Opened in 1922, it served as a branch for the bank, as well as rental office space.
Two fires in the 1970s left it abandoned by the 1980s. Only in the last few years has their been any talk of restoration, most recently as an upscale hotel with a nightclub in the old bank vault.
Appropriately, this has been deemed Raymond Chandler Square…
…and there’s even a pretty fantastic alley behind the building for all sorts of nefarious activities to take place.
In your office, you run into Carmen’s sister Vivian, who tells you that she received a letter that morning – someone is once again trying to blackmail Carmen, this time for the naked photographs taken at Geiger’s house on the night of his murder. She’s also interested in having you look into something of her own: the disappearance of her husband, one Rusty Reagan, who’s believed to have run off with the wife of a local casino owner named Eddie Mars.
You return to Joe Brody’s apartment to confront him about the blackmail, and he admits the truth: originally, Geiger was blackmailing Carmen. The family chauffeur found out about it and murdered Geiger at his house. Brody, who happened to be staking out Geiger’s house that night for dirt on a whim, followed the chauffeur as he fled the scene, knocked him out, and stole his scandalous photos of Carmen, which he was going to blackmail her with.
You square things with the police, and head home: It was close to eleven when I put my car away and walked around to the front of the Hobart Arms (Marlowe later describes his residence as being on “Franklin near Kenmore”).
The next day, you head to Eddie Mars’ casino, The Cypress Club, to see about Vivian’s missing husband. If he ran off with Eddie’s wife, maybe Eddie has some information on his whereabouts? Unless, of course, Eddie killed Rusty for stealing his girl…
The Cypress Club was at the far end of [Las Olindas], a rambling frame mansion that had once been the summer residence of a rich man named De Cazens, and later had been a hotel. It was now a big dark outwardly shabby place in a thick grove of wind-twisted Monterey cypresses, which gave it its name. It had enormous scrolled porches, turrets all over the place, stained-glass trims around the big windows, big empty stables at the back, a general air of nostalgic decay. Eddie Mars had left the outside much as he had found it, instead of making it over to look like an MGM set.
A fantastic description, and it’s clear that there’s some actual location in mind for this – but where? It’s not known what town Las Olindas is an alias for, but descriptions in the book put it in the El Segundo/Manhattan Beach area.
At the club, Eddie offers you little by way of clues. You run into Vivian, and sense something peculiar in the air between her and Eddie. You drive her home that night along Manhattan Ave/Highland Ave…
We drove away from Las Olindas through a series of little dank beach towns with shack-like houses built down on the sand close to the rumble of the surf and larger houses built back on the slopes behind.
A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.
We were close to Del Rey before she spoke to me for the first time since we left the drugstore. Her voice had a muffled sound, as if something was throbbing deep under it.
“Drive down by the Del Rey beach club. I want to look at the water. It’s the next street on the left.”
There was a winking yellow light at the intersection. I turned the car and slid down a slope…interurban tracks to the right, a low straggle of light far off beyond the tracks, and then very far off a glitter of pier lights and a haze in the sky over a city.
The road…reached a paved strip of waterfront highway that bordered an open and uncluttered beach. Cars were parked along the sidewalk, facing out to sea, dark. The lights of the beach club were a few hundred yards away.
The beach club described is most likely the Westport Beach Club of Playa Del Rey, dating to at least the early 1920s and now gone. Note the tracks Marlowe describes crossing in the photo below, taken in 1940:
Out of the blue, a man approaches you claiming to have information as to the whereabouts of Eddie Mars’ wife Mona, who supposedly ran off with Rusty. Find Mona, find Rusty? You agree to meet him at his office at “Western and Santa Monica” for the dirt.
At seven the rain had stopped for a breathing spell, but the gutters were still flooded. On Santa Monica the water was level with the sidewalk and a thin film of it washed over the top of the curbing.
A traffic cop in shining black rubber from boots to cap sloshed through the flood on his way from the shelter of a sodden awning. My rubber heels slithered on the sidewalk as I turned into the narrow lobby of the Fulwider Building.
Right on Santa Monica near Western is the beautiful Palomar Hotel building, which seems to be the likely culprit. This was a hotel dating back to the 1930s, where a number of silent era film actors once lived.
You get the information you’re looking for: Mona Mars, Eddie’s wife, is holed up in a garage near Realito (Rialto, of course). On a rainy night, you drive out on the highway through town – the legendary Route 66.
Cars passed with a tearing hiss and a wave of dirty spray. The highway jerked through a little town that was all packing houses and sheds, and railway sidings nuzzling them. The groves thinned out and dropped away to the south and the road climbed and it was cold and to the north the black foothills crouched closer and sent a bitter wind whipping down their flanks. Then faintly out of the dark two yellow vapor lights glowed high up in the air and a neon sign between them said: “Welcome to Realito.”
Fate stage-managed the whole thing. Beyond Realito, just about a mile beyond, the highway took a curve and the rain fooled me and I went too close to the shoulder.
A mile beyond Rialto, there is indeed a very odd curve to the highway…
After getting a flat tire, you wind up in the garage where Eddie Mars’ wife Mona is being held. But there’s no sign of Rusty – Mona claims that Eddie didn’t kill him, and she didn’t run off with him.
You head back to the mansion to report this to the Sternwoods. As you’re leaving, Carmen asks you to teach her to shoot a gun, and you travel to the family’s oil field to do so.
It was a narrow dirt road, not much more than a track, like the entrance to some foothill ranch…I followed the ruts along and the noise of city traffic grew curiously and quickly faint, as if this were not in the city at all, but far away in a daydream land. Then the oil-stained, motionless walking-beam of a squat wooden derrick stuck up over a branch.
This is most likely a composite of the oil fields around Inglewood, some of which are still pumping to this day:
Here, Carmen tries to shoot you, but you’ve long ago realized the truth – she killed Rusty for resisting her advances, and is now looking to do the same to you. You manage to subdue her and return her to her sister, who promises to have her institutionalized.
As you drive off from the Sternwood mansion, you reflect on the past week’s events:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan was. But the old man didn’t have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes.
And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
PS – As Chandler fans have probably noticed, I’ve significantly condensed and somewhat altered the book’s plot for my post. In reality, The Big Sleep is insanely fucking complicated – which is one of the many reasons I love it. Chandler essentially combined and expanded upon two of his previously published short stories, hence the dual mystery that ensues (Carmen’s blackmail, Vivian’s husband’s disappearance). In the end, even he wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders (the chauffeur’s death off the pier remains unexplained – Joe Brody only knocked him out).
If you haven’t read The Big Sleep before, do so immediately. I’m usually a speed reader – Chandler is the author who taught me to slow the hell down and savor each word.
If you enjoyed reading this post, would you consider making a donation to help me make my first movie? The goal is $50,000, and already, 1,701 generous readers have donated $35,874.00. Just $5 or $10 can make a difference - AND you get a snazzy Scouting NY sticker or magnet as a Thank-You gift! Click here to donate today!