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Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000) 695-724

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"I'm in The Business Too": Gothic Chivalry, Private Eyes, and Proxy Sex and Violence in Chandler's The Big Sleep

Charles J. Rzepka

II. Gothic Popular Forms

"He didn't seem to be really trying"

Forty years ago, in Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler traced the lineage of the American hard-boiled detective to the rise of the Gothic novel, placing what he called the "proletarian" detective genre in the category of "terror entertainment" (473) that had descended, through Edgar Allan Poe, from the works of Charles Brockton Brown. Several other progenitors had contributed, including James Fenimore Cooper's frontier romances and the Marquis de Sade's anti-Enlightenment pornography. Cooper's influence appeared in the fact that, unlike the English or Continental "dandy turned sleuth" (or the Francophile Poe's Auguste Dupin), the modern American private eye represents "the cowboy adapted to life on the city streets" (476). Like a streetwise Natty Bumppo, he patrols a violent frontier between civilization and savagery, with a foot in each world. 1 He also retains the Deerslayer's "native birthright of anti-feminism" (477). However, in line with the more [End Page 695] prurient, male Gothic tradition of de Sade and Matthew Lewis, the modern private eye insists "on undressing [his] bitches, surveying them with a surly and concupiscent eye before punching, shooting, or consigning them to the gas-chamber. Not only in the cruder and more successful books of Mickey Spillane, but in the more pretentious ones of Raymond Chandler, the detective story has reverted to a kind of populist semi-pornography" (477).

While few critics would put Spillane's formulaic sadism and Chandler's "Los Angeles Gothic" (Margolies 44) in the same category, the negative reaction to Chandler's treatment of sex and violence, especially violence toward women, has continued unabated. 2 More nuanced judgments, some no less critical, have emerged as well. Gershon Legman (69-70), Hassell Simpson, and Michael Mason have tried to modify the conventional views of Chandler's unregenerate masculinism by pointing to homoerotic and homosocial, as well as homophobic, tendencies in the novels--tendencies, as Eve Sedgwick once remarked, that are endemic to male Gothic almost from the beginning (92). 3 Others, like Jerry Speir, appeal to context (112-113) or, like James Shokoff and Kathryn Ward, focus on female characters challenging the "bitch" and "witch" (James 118) stereotypes.

One of the most interesting of the recent revisionists is Sharon Devaney-Lovinguth. Her Chandler is a product of the culturally deracinated aftermath of the Great War in which he fought and from which, as sole survivor of an artillery barrage that destroyed his platoon, he never completely emerged. Drawing on Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar's study of modernism and masculinity in No Man's Land, Devaney-Lovinguth sees Chandler's famous gumshoe alter ego, Philip Marlowe, as "a version of the modernist unman whose character reflects the loss of a definition of 'manness' and manhood, and who is, himself, an identity in process" (6). In his novels, Chandler "sets up stereotypes of gender and sexual identity only to unsettle them" (8). Particularly in The Big Sleep, which many consider more nostalgic than critical regarding the survival of chivalric ideals in a "nasty" world, Devaney-Lovinguth sees in Marlowe a "modern knight who in order to be a knight rejects, inverts, then remakes chivalric 'knightliness'" altogether. One liberating effect of Marlowe's quest is the "freeing of men and women from the concepts of 'knightliness' and 'ladyness,' from the inadequate and invalid stereotypes assigned by gender" (8). [End Page 696]

Devaney-Lovinguth's approach takes for granted the oppositional and critical potential of popular genres, among which, as recent work has shown, the Gothic is a striking example. 4 Chandler's critique of "knightliness" begins on the first page of The Big Sleep, with his description of a huge stained glass window dominating the entrance hall of the Sternwood...


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