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Philip Marlowe, family man.


Hardboiled detective fiction has long been considered an inherently conservative genre, typified by an individualist ethos, rampant misogyny, and antipathy for racial difference. This article, however, joins recent scholarship that locates a utopian impulse in the genre with a study of family in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels. Following Jameson's "synoptic" method of reading Chandler's fiction, Beal argues that Marlowe has a latent desire for the collective potential of family in The Big Sleep (1939), but that as subsequent texts' families become more chaotic, that wish becomes more suppressed. The synoptic reading demonstrates a widening gap in Marlowe's wish fulfillment. Major upheaval in the institution during the modern period, as the family was moving from a hierarchal unit to a more democratic one, made the family an accommodating, even enviable, social experience for a character like Marlowe and granted him access as its normative strictures were easing.


As he spent his twilight years drinking heavily and enjoying the celebrity and fortune he had earned with his Philip Marlowe novels and his work in Hollywood, Raymond Chandler tinkered with a short story that would pit his famous character against the final frontier of the hardboiled detective: marriage. Chandler drafted some ten pages of the story, under the title "Poodle Springs," with the plan that his hero would "drink himself to death because he could not work any more" (Hiney 1997, 269). He ultimately abandoned the project, telling a friend that for Marlowe to marry, "even to a very nice girl, is quite out of character. I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated" (270). In 1989, the crime fiction writer Robert B. Parker, who had devoted part of his dissertation to Chandler, completed "Poodle Springs" as a novel, realizing the Marlowe narrative where Chandler had flinched.

Chandler's abandonment of that story's conceit underscores some of the major conventions of hardboiled detective fiction: the stark individualism of the detective, his antagonistic relationships with women, and above all the codes of masculinity that are typified by detachment and violence. With these genre boundaries it is not surprising that Chandler would have balked at domesticating Marlowe. But the modern period also tells a different story that bears on Marlowe's relation to the family, one in which the meaning of family life was dramatically changing and becoming more accommodating for a figure like Marlowe. As both a social condition of modernism and as an object of modern invention, the family is routinely underestimated by scholars of modernisms. Indeed, the moderns turned their trademark spirit of innovation to the family form with an array of inventions, including the "companionate family" model and several radical new arrangements for family living. None of this is to paper over the sins of the institution, identified in the feminist critique of patriarchal violence and gender normativity; in the Marxist critique of corrupted understandings of solidarity or the privatization of social energy; and in Chandler's critique, which I suspect is premised mostly on ennui. But these inventions and transformations would make family thinkable for Marlowe even if Chandler never granted him the experience.

Following recent criticism from Leonard Cassuto, Sean McCann, and others who have argued that Marlowe is driven by a search for various forms of community, I locate this desire for social life in the vexing families that populate the Marlowe novels. Because this desire runs afoul of what Christopher Breu describes as the hardboiled "suppression of affect," it only manifests in passing remarks that betray the hardboiled facade (2005, 1). These remarks acquire their full meaning when read alongside a tracing of the family's successive versions across the Marlowe narratives--a method akin to pattern recognition that I borrow from Fredric Jameson's seminal essay "The Synoptic Chandler" (1993). Jameson's method emphasizes the patchwork nature of Chandler's oeuvre, wherein "the seams and transitions constitute the truest locus of aesthetic production" and give the novels their modernist quality (1993, 34). He reads the tropes of the office space as an index of "the Chandlerian cognitive map" and suggests the synoptic reading could be leveraged against Chandler's motifs of color or the "meteorological rhythms" of the Marlowe novels (45-47). When applied to the patterning of families, the synoptic method illustrates an inverse relationship: as Chandler's families become more and more problematic, so does Marlowe's desire for family become more suppressed. This desire for family--not the literal domesticity of "Poodle Springs" but a radical, utopian form of collective enterprise--puts the family at the center of Chandler's work and situates it as the object of Marlowe's unrealized wish fulfillment.


Over the past decade or so, hardboiled detective fiction has become a key front--perhaps the central front--for studying the boundaries of high and popular culture in American modernism. In reinvigorating the genre for a new century's scholarly contexts, many critics come up against a stubborn contradiction between its conservatism and its radical politics. The deeply conservative impulses of the genre--the same conventions that in part negated the "Poodle Springs" conceit--have been a mainstay of criticism. In Hardboiled Masculinities (2005), for example, Christopher Breu acknowledges that the genre emerged in response to the 1920s crisis in masculinity, using homosocial competition and heterosexual desire as two axes driving the formation of an active, exteriorized manhood (Breu 2005, 14-16). And in City of Quartz (1990), Mike Davis alleges that Marlowe harbors fascist tendencies in his treatment of racial difference and situates those tendencies as a symptom of the entire genre. (1) Other work emphasizes the genre's radical, utopian elements, often pointing to its affinity for the proletarian novel. Sean McCann's Gumshoe America (2000), for instance, argues that the hardboiled fiction of the New Deal era was invested in a democratic form of "common culture," with Chandler's novels preoccupied with "a vision of male fellowship" and "idealized brotherhood" as a model of community (McCann 2000, 30, 14041). This dialectical tension is a durable feature of the genre and the family can be understood as its purest expression, simultaneously coding a raft of reactionary ideologies as "family values" and promising a model of "common culture" that could extend beyond the household.

Marlowe's engagements with family can be read alongside both of these valences. And in this ambivalence, the Marlowe novels' family matters are crucial to the formation of the genre, as Chandler establishes the trope of the wealthy, degenerate family for the hardboiled and noir genres. As Leonard Cassuto says, "Chandler drew the modern blueprint for one of the ur-plots of hard-boiled crime fiction, in which the detective arrives to fix the broken family" (2009, 82). Indeed, Cassuto's Hard-Boiled Sentimentality (2009) has broken ground on the detective's relationship to family, arguing that over time the hardboiled detective softens in his caustic individualism as the genre evolves and comes to recognize its roots in the sentimental fiction of the nineteenth century. Marlowe plays a central role in Cassuto's narrative. "Modeled on Philip Marlowe in many respects," Cassuto argues, "the 'sentimental action hero' displaces the mother from the center of the sentimental scenario and positions a virile sentimental man at the front lines of protecting family, home, and hearth" (18). And in assigning Marlowe this maternal role, Cassuto frames Chandler as pursuing a traditional, sentimental family ideal--one that was categorically threatened by the financial hardships of the Depression and, moreover, by the reverberations of modernity throughout the American family. Family, in this reading, provides the reactionary service of nostalgia and aligns roughly with the conservative politics that inform the genre's rightward impulses.

Cassuto's reading registers one pole of the genre's family politics, looking backward to explain Marlowe's family dynamics in the essentially conservative roots of sentimentalism. He provides a convincing genealogy for the genre's increasingly entangled relationship with sentimentalism, wherein the hardboiled premium on competitive self-interest is balanced by the sentimental emphasis on family and altruism--a dialectic shaped by the market/household, public/private division (2009, 9-11). But while this framework illuminates the genre's and especially Chandler's dialogue with an earlier regime of fiction, the turn to the sentimental family does not fully account for the kind of family life that Marlowe desires; for it is a desire for family--not just a familial role--that typifies the other polarity of family politics in the Marlowe novels. Marlowe's entanglements with his clients' families are too messy to fit tidily into the traditional boundaries of the sentimental family. Instead, Marlowe seems to anticipate new configurations of family that, while informed by the traditional family made nostalgic in sentimental fiction, produce radically alternative modes of social organization--flouting what in Antigone's Claim Judith Butler calls the "normative versions of kinship" that are in part coded by the sentimental family (2000, 2).

To assert Chandler's family politics may strike some readers as implausible, because of course Marlowe's own family situation is marked by a glaring lack, a characteristic that many readers might take as evidence of an individualistic ethos. This lack is made clear in The Big Sleep (1939), Chandler's first and most influential novel. After rejecting Carmen Sternwood's sexual advances when she visits his apartment, Marlowe surveys the space and reflects, "In it was everything that was mine, that had any association for me, any past, anything that took the place of a family" (Chandler 1976, 158). This conspicuous void recurs throughout the Marlowe novels. In The Long Goodbye, published in 1953, the racketeer Mendy Menendez ominously observes Marlowe's precarity, snarling, "No dough, no family, no prospects, no nothing" to scare him off Terry Lennox's trail (Chandler 1981, 79). Later in that novel, Marlowe himself reflects on his lack of family:

I'm a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel the bottom has dropped out of his or her life. (Chandler 1981, 92)

Marlowe's lack of family creates a tidy chiastic structure with the thoroughly dysfunctional families of his clients, a gulf that aids the suppression of his desire for family.

This chiastic structure, however, crumples in Marlowe's experiences with his client families. Despite Marlowe's experiences with these disastrous families and the absence of any of his own family ties, he welcomes opportunities not only to identify with them in the abstract, but also to become further entangled in the families of his clients. Observing the detective's tendency to enmesh himself in family affairs, Cassuto characterizes Marlowe as "a fully formed guardian of family ideals" (2009, 82). This is true above all in The Big Sleep, where Marlowe's entanglement with family is not only a professional relation with the Sternwoods, the family whose troubles motivate the plot of the novel, but a desire for familial affiliation itself. The Sternwoods themselves do not hold to sentimental family ideals; Marlowe once registers his disgust with them by thinking to himself, "I had a bellyful of the Sternwood family" (Chandler 1976, 118). But their loyalty to each other, unparalleled by subsequent families, appeals to the detective in his alienation.

Marlowe's desire for family--and simultaneously his rejection of its "normative versions"--rests in large part on a fleeting use of the first-person plural. In this passing remark, Marlowe associates himself with the Sternwoods. The Big Sleep provides a model for the dysfunctional families that are a commonplace in the Marlowe novels, which serially provide Chandler's protagonist one "bellyful" after another, but a synoptic reading also reveals its signature family as unique--more accommodating than the sociopathic families that would come later. The statement grows out of a labyrinthine plot typical of the hardboiled genre: Marlowe confronts Carol Lundgren, who has murdered Joe Brody, mistakenly thinking that Brody had killed his lover Arthur Geiger, the pornographer who is also involved with Carmen Sternwood, the younger of the Sternwood daughters. Marlowe tells Lundgren, "You're going to cop a plea, brother, don't ever think you're not. And you're going to say just what we want you to say and nothing we don't want you to say" (Chandler 1976, 102; emphasis added). Here Marlowe not only plays surrogate son to the family but identifies as a Sternwood outright. Marlowe's use of the first-person plural does not occur elsewhere in The Big Sleep, and the scarcity of its usage across Chandler's prose underscores its importance as a marker of Marlowe's suppressed inferiority.

The rare uses of the first-person plural that follow The Big Sleep never signal any kind of sincere identification. For example, in The Long Goodbye, Marlowe periodically impersonates a Carne Organization man, the bureaucratic foil to his isolated detective work, in an effort to intimidate informants. He tells one doctor, "We've got a file on what we call the barred-window boys, Doctor," and cautions another, "We operate very confidential" (Chandler 1981, 123, 131). Marlowe refers to some Carne files he has actually seen, thanks to his former colleague and Carne insider George Peters, but the use of the first-person plural here goes no further than Marlowe's superficial attempt to impress informants with the intimation of vast resources behind him. Similarly, in The Lady in the Lake (1943), Marlowe interrogates the blackmailing gigolo Chris Lavery, saying, "Why not tell us where she is? ... We'll find out eventually anyway and if you can tell us now, we won't be bothering you" (Chandler 1992, 21). Again he is trying to intimidate a source by making himself sound more numerous and powerful than he is. There are a handful of similar cases across the Marlowe novels, but they still fall within the range of hardboiled affect and avoid signaling any genuine affiliation because Marlowe is invoking association with others whom he truly detests. Marlowe's slipup with Lundgren in The Big Sleep is distinctive in that it approaches an expression of wish fulfillment.

The subject of Marlowe's first-person plural allows for some ambiguity, in large part due to the gendered contexts of the Lundgren plotline. In the process of apprehending Lundgren, Marlowe has deduced that he and Geiger had been carrying on a homosexual relationship. Chandler provides exposition by giving Marlowe a homophobic speech: he refers to Geiger with a slur and describes the pornographer as "like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men" (Chandler 1976, 100). Produced in this situation, Marlowe's first-person plural could be read as invoking an exceptionalist heterosexual masculinity--an imagined community of straight men out to suppress queer claims for manhood. This heteronormative "we" would also resemble a more aggressive formation of the homosocial "male fellowship" that McCann identifies later in Lady in the Lake. Or one could read the affiliation inversely. For instance, in his 1949 study Love and Death, Gershon Legman reads Marlowe's "frigid rejection" of women's sexual advances as evidence that "Chandler's Marlowe is clearly homosexual" (1963, 70). One might read Marlowe's obsession with interior decoration in The Big Sleep--first at the entrance to the Sternwoods' estate, and again at Geiger's house--as further evidence of this claim. In this reading, the latent queer desire actually necessitates the killing of Rusty Regan, husband of Carmen's older sister Vivian and surrogate son to his father-in-law General Sternwood, in order to keep the focus on homosocial rather than homosexual fellowship. But neither of these gendered readings accounts for the full breadth of Marlowe's speech to Lundgren. Marlowe almost certainly bears a heteronormative animosity for Lundgren and Geiger, but any group formation of defenders of heterosexual masculinity remains purely in the imaginary: Marlowe never has any practical experience in colluding with others against queerness. And the queered reading, drawing on Marlowe's refusal of Vivian's and Carmen's advances, does not account for other moments of heterosexual attraction: for instance, the sexual tension between the detective and Mona "Silver-Wig" Mars while he is held captive later in the novel. Rather than signifying homosexuality, in other words, Marlowe's repudiations of the Sternwood sisters might be better understood in this familial reading as marking trepidation for the incest taboo.

A third reading of the subject of the first-person plural aligns Marlowe with the state. In the lines immediately preceding his assurance to Lundgren that he will "say just what we want," Marlowe threatens him with the prospect of execution in a state prison. "And that's what they call humane execution in our state now," Marlowe warns after a grisly description of San Quentin's gas chamber (Chandler 1976, 101). With this "our" in place, Marlowe's "we" might have more to do with the police force or the law generally. This, however, is perhaps the hardest to accept of the "we" readings, given Marlowe's unwavering disdain for the police force and his fickle regard for the law. Aside from his affinity for Bernie Ohls, the district attorney alongside whom Marlowe once worked as an investigator, Marlowe consistently antagonizes policemen, an antipathy loosely aligned with his hostility toward the Carne Organization men in The Long Goodbye. For instance, in The Big Sleep when he is called into Captain Cronjager's office to share information on Geiger's murder, Marlowe sneers at the ease with which "coppers" might gun down "some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare" (1976, 109). He even insinuates that the police were covering up Geiger's porn racket, the source of the blackmail case that originally brought him to the Sternwoods: "The Hollywood police allowed it to operate, for their own reasons. I dare say the Grand Jury would like to know what those reasons are," he says with quiet menace (113). Meanwhile, Marlowe flouts the law by withholding key information from Cronjager about the Sternwoods' involvement. The novel concludes with another obstruction of justice, as Marlowe promises Vivian that he will not report Carmen's crimes as long as Vivian sees to it that her sister receives some psychiatric care. The "our" of "our state" does work that is distinct from the "we" that follows it: it merely links Marlowe and Lundgren as subjects of California law, whereas the "we" signals a more profound desire for family affiliation.

In genre terms, Marlowe's desire for family is a major departure from the hardboiled ethos of rugged individualism; it breaks the hardboiled detective's facade, which Breu describes as a "suppression of affect": "The purging of subjective affect from the first-person narrative, suggesting a form of consciousness that seems fully adapted to the rationalized and instrumentalized landscape of everyday life in the 1920s" (Breu 2005, 68). But more specifically for Marlowe, this lapse in the hardboiled facade signals a desire for family that he does not allow himself to fully confront. It is a passing remark to a marginal character, but it is an important placeholder for a social desire that Marlowe is otherwise keen to avoid contemplating. In other words, those two sentences spoken to Lundgren carry more of Marlowe's suppressed interiority than pages and pages of hardboiled deflection.

While this "we" is notable for rupturing what is otherwise a silent--in genre terms, perhaps unspeakable--desire, corroborating evidence of Marlowe's pursuit of family life emerges in his professional relationship with the Sternwoods. Indeed, the exact nature of his assignment with the Sternwoods is one of the mysteries of The Big Sleep's early plotlines. The initial job for Marlowe is to sort out a simple case of blackmail, as Geiger has suggested that the General make good on his daughter Carmen's gambling debts. But his focus soon shifts to the pursuit of Rusty Regan, even though the General does not formally assign him this task until the thirtieth of the novel's thirty-two chapters. In the meantime, Marlowe himself is evasive about his work. When the mobster Eddie Mars suggests that Marlowe is investigating Rusty, Marlowe responds: "A lot of people seem to think I am, but I'm not" (Chandler 1976, 117). Soon after wrapping up the blackmail case, Marlowe returns of his own accord to Eddie to question him about Rusty's disappearance but tells him that he is "not professionally" interested in Rusty (132). Later he tells Mona Mars, falsely, that he has been hired to find Rusty. Marlowe's decision to work beyond his contractual obligation to the Sternwoods comes with peril and sacrifice: he continually puts himself in harm's way as he pursues Rusty and he spends 40 percent of his earnings on the case without reimbursement. (2) In the absence of a concrete assignment to investigate Rusty's disappearance, his work is best understood as demonstrating his loyalty to the Sternwood family and particularly to the General.

The motivation for this para-contractual work has its foundation in the very first scene of the novel. Standing in the foyer of the Sternwoods' mansion, Marlowe studies a stained-glass panel depicting a knight in full armor rescuing a female nude who has been bound to a tree. The image has prompted several worthwhile discussions of the chivalrous themes of the Marlowe novels. (3) But Marlowe's response to the panel is also informative of his investment in the Sternwood family. "I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be trying," Marlowe thinks to himself (Chandler 1976, 4). "If I lived in the house"--from the earliest moment of the novel, Marlowe is already imagining himself among the Sternwoods. This is the latent wish that informs his use of the first-person plural with Carol Lundren, and drives him to work off the books pursuing Rusty on the Sternwoods' behalf.

The idea of living in the house, as it were, manifests in the appropriation of different familial roles. In Cassuto's reading, the genre's "sentimental action hero," for which Marlowe sets the model, displaces the mother from the sentimental milieu. The Sternwood clan conspicuously lacks a matriarch: there is no mention of a Mrs. Sternwood except for the General's remark that "Carmen is still a minor under her mother's will" (Chandler 1976, 14). However, Marlowe only fills this maternal void figuratively, instead seeking out more concrete relations in other familial roles. The most literal example of his arrogation of familial roles occurs when Vivian tries to make a pass at him; Marlowe defers and asserts a brotherly role: "You won't be a sister to me?" (152). But more significant is how, throughout the text, Marlowe insinuates himself into the Sternwood family as the General's surrogate son, fulfilling a role once performed by Rusty Regan. This appropriation of the filial role drives his para-contractual pursuit of Rusty. Marlowe demonstrates a filial piety that exceeds the usual disinterest of the contractor when he suspects that Sternwood might not live long enough to reconnect with Rusty. And when he finds that Rusty has been murdered by Carmen in the Sternwoods' oil fields, Marlowe decides to withhold the discovery from the General, explaining that he considers his job "to protect what little pride a broken and sick old man has left in his blood, in the thought that his blood is not poison" (228). He takes a sincere concern for the General as a father figure, and others in the Sternwood mansion recognize his efforts. Norris, the Sternwoods' butler, nods toward this substitution of surrogate sons when he tells Marlowe that Rusty had a soldier's eye "not unlike yours" (215), providing a winking confirmation that the General had found a new member of the family. Son and brother but never father--if family desire remains unfocused in Chandler's fiction, perhaps one reason is Marlowe's limited imagination.

Aside from its break with generic conventions, Marlowe's identification with one of his clients' families is all the more surprising because, to put it simply, Chandler's families are populated with terrible people and are profoundly dysfunctional social units. On the surface, the Sternwoods set the template for such dysfunction. General Sternwood lays out an unflattering family portrait in his first meeting with Marlowe, saying of his daughter's sisterly bonds, "I think they go their separate and slightly divergent roads to perdition. Vivian is spoiled, exacting, smart and ruthless. Carmen is a child who likes to pull wings off flies. Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had" (Chandler 1976, 13). And the Sternwoods turn out to be even more dysfunctional than the General knows. While Marlowe originally enters the Sternwoods' home to deal with Geiger's blackmail case, his investigations ultimately reveal Carmen's willing involvement in a porn racket. Moreover, his para-contractual search for Rusty Regan results in the discovery that it was Carmen who murdered her own brother-in-law and Vivian had covered it up, forsaking her marital obligation to her husband Rusty as well as her father's adoration for the surrogate son. The Sternwoods, in other words, fall far short of the sentimental ideal.

Such families would remain a staple of Chandler's fiction from Depression era works like The Big Sleep through wartime novels like The Lady in the Lake and into the Cold War in his final novel, Playback (1958). For example, in The High Window, first published in 1942, the matriarch Elizabeth Bright Murdock brutally manipulates her secretary and surrogate daughter Merle Davis into believing that she has killed Murdock's first husband, when Murdock herself committed the murder; her son Leslie betrays the family by placing their priceless Brasher Doubloon on the black market. In The Long Goodbye, Chandler's penultimate work, which McCann describes as reading like "a memorial to the passing of Chandler's literary ambitions" (2000, 177), Marlowe encounters a tyrannical patriarch in Harlan Potter, who terrifies his daughter Linda Loring and who is so obsessed with privacy that he suppresses any investigation into the murder of his nymphomaniac daughter Sylvia Lennox. Marlowe subsequently becomes enmeshed in the domestic conflicts between Roger and Eileen Wade, who kills her husband and tries unsuccessfully to stage his death as a suicide. Between Sternwoods, Murdocks, Potters, and Wades, one could justifiably reassert the chiastic structure that places the alienated detective in opposition to the wealthy clients' families. There seems to be nothing desirable about them.

Yet the Sternwoods are different in this narrative patterning. They are not exemplars of any kind of sentimental family ideals but, unlike any other family that Marlowe encounters, they demonstrate the collective interests of family. Where the Murdock, Potter, or Wade clans are all too likely to cannibalize their own, the Sternwoods--especially Vivian and the General--put collectivity into practice. Marlowe senses this collectivism when he calls Vivian's bluff that she will go to the police about Carmen being blackmailed by Geiger: "No. You have to protect your father and your sister. You don't know what the police might turn up" (Chandler 1976, 59). And in the final exposition of the novel, Vivian admits that she has in fact protected Carmen--now known to suffer from psychotic episodes--not only from blackmail, but also from being exposed for murdering Rusty: "I was playing for time. Just for time. I played the wrong way, of course. I thought she might even forget it herself. I've heard they do forget what happens in those fits. Maybe she has forgotten it" (229). A guardian of sentimental family ideals Vivian is not, but she does provide Marlowe with a lesson in collective fidelity. Like her father, who remains committed to Rusty's well-being, Vivian's allegiance to her sister and father signals not only family ideals but the ideals of collective life. Despite the rampant dysfunction the Sternwoods display throughout The Big Sleep, their collectivism appeals to Marlowe in his professional and personal alienation, and it is the utopian desire for such association that he must suppress in order to maintain his hardboiled facade.

This is where Jameson's diachronic synoptic reading is most illuminating. After the Sternwoods, each successive family makes the desire for family a more and more remote prospect. As Elizabeth Murdock and Eileen Wade are murdering their own, the outcome of "Poodle Springs" becomes less and less viable. The Sternwoods' collectivism is progressively diminished in the subsequent families of the Marlowe novels. Carmen's murder of Rusty, after all, is attributed to undefined psychotic episodes, an exculpating circumstance to which no subsequent character can lay claim. While he can utter a vague wish for the Sternwoods' familial solidarity, that wish is progressively obscured in Marlowe's subsequent encounters with families. The wish for family becomes harder for him to conceive of and to articulate and more difficult for readers to discern.

After the Sternwoods, the Marlowe novels can only register a spectral familial wish at a remove--never again in Marlowe's own words. For example, in The High Window, after he has exposed Elizabeth Bright Murdock's cruel manipulation of Merle Davis, the only way Marlowe can figure to rectify the situation is to return Merle to Witchita and her family, from whom she has long been estranged while under Murdock's influence. Marlowe's journey takes ten days, longer than the extent of his investigation in The High Window, but warrants only three paragraphs of narration. Those scant paragraphs seem foggy in Marlowe's narrational voice. He recalls the Davises in nostalgic imagery: "When I left Merle was wearing a bungalow apron and rolling pie crust" (Chandler 1992, 262). But that seems about the extent of his recollection. "I had a funny feeling as I saw the house disappear, as though I had written a poem and it was very good and I had lost it and it would never remember it again," Marlowe recalls (262). Marlowe's final view of Merle smacks of the sexist iconography of 1940s and 50s domestic advertisements, a reminder of the "Poodle Springs" conceit that was not to be. But the forgetting of the Wichita sojourn is what comes to the fore in a synoptic reading of Chandler's families, literalizing the erasure of family desire that takes place over the course of the Marlowe novels.


The absent presence of family in The Big Sleep and the widening gulf between Marlowe and family in the subsequent Chandler novels are all the more striking when we remember the prevalence of the family saga in the narrative production of the late 1930s. As Gordon Hutner demonstrates in What America Read (2009), his groundbreaking survey of middle-class fiction from the 1920s through the 1950s, multigenerational novels proliferated in the late 1930s in just the same moment when Marlowe enters his fraught relationship with family in The Big Sleep. (4) Hutner writes, "The Depression contorted the modern American family in ways that may no longer be keenly appreciated, and the fiction of the last few years of the decade vividly records the kinds of family problems that the Depression created, a literature that exhibits the public issues afflicting the private life and family organization" (2009, 180). Families of the Depression era felt low wages and undernourishment acutely and adopted austerity measures like gardening, canning foods, and making their own clothing to meet the challenges of the economy. (5) By demonstrating continuity over generations, the family saga could in part assuage fears of social instability during this period. In other words, the late-1930s family saga directly addresses the crises in the American family with a sense of familial solidarity that Marlowe, constrained by conventions of the hardboiled genre, can only approach with the indirection of wish fulfillment. Of more lasting importance than the family's demographic and economic changes during the Depression, however, were the ideational changes in the family that were occurring throughout the 1920s and 1930s. As the institution adapted to modernity to include "companionate" and still more radical models of familial organization, the ideas of what constituted family changed in ways that speak directly to Marlowe's wish for the Sternwoods' collectivism.

While Chandler's muting of family concerns sets the Marlowe novels in counterpoint to the prevalence of the family saga in the late 1930s, the detective's entanglement with family is also situated in the hardboiled genre's traditional roots in immigrant readership. In addition to its refusal of the genre's suppression of affect, Marlowe's longing for family is continuous with its readership and its historically ethnic makeup. The legacy of this readership on Chandler's contributions to the genre manifests in these family dynamics. As Erin A. Smith has convincingly shown in Hard-Boiled (2000), the magazine Black Mask, which first introduced readers to Marlowe, had a largely immigrant readership despite the tendency of its stories to emphasize white nativism. In the absence of hard data on subscriptions or other indices of readership, Smith reconstructs the Black Mask reader through the advertisements that would have hailed him--for instance, nose-straightening devices targeting Jewish and southern Italian immigrants or "impression-management" ads that preyed upon anxieties of one's command over English mechanics and pronunciation (2000, 65, 68). Smith argues that these ads spoke to an immigrant readership that, still enmeshed in enclaves of family and kin, was coming to terms with the capitalist ethos of the individual through the hardboiled detective, who is identified solely through his work (80). For Smith, hardboiled fiction serves the practical role of eroding the role of the family in order to Americanize the Black Mask reader, interpolating him to the values of work and autonomy epitomized by the hardboiled detective.

The Big Sleep carried this readership residually, but eventually reached a much wider audience as it produced a juggernaut franchise for Chandler. The novel's sales flagged as Chandler refused to move the novel from hardback to pulp publication, until 1943 when he allowed a twenty-five-cent paperback edition that sold so many copies it was immediately rerun as a special armed-services edition (Hiney 1997, 131). On the heels of the 1946 film version of The Big Sleep, adapted by William Faulkner and starring Humphrey Bogart, the Marlowe novels were published in hardback, paperback, and pulp editions; in 1947 a radio show began on NBC, later moving to CBS and by 1949 pulling in an average audience of 10.3 million, the highest of any drama series on American radio (176-77). With the rapid flourishing of the Marlowe franchise, Chandler's audience virtually blanketed the nation.

In the transference of the distinctly immigrant readership of Black Mask to the near-market saturation of Marlowe narratives, the issues of the ethnic enclave, of the immigrant networks of family and kinship, are generalized across the modern American landscape--but with a turn. Where Smith locates in Black Mask stories the ideologies of work and the individual against the family orientation of the reader, Marlowe's affinity for family signals a desire for precisely the ethnic situation suppressed by Black Mask. In other words, while Chandler's treatment of racial difference is suspect, as Mike Davis indicates, Marlowe covets the collective life he sees modeled by the Sternwoods--a collective life best expressed in the ethnic enclave.

In addition to being situated in the generic dialogue of hardboiled detective fiction's family dynamics, Marlowe's family politics were also informed by changing discourses of what constituted a family. Leading thinkers worked to create a new identity for the family to help sustain the institution through the modern period, especially in response to the sexual revolution and women's advances in education and the workplace. While some reformers simply reasserted a Victorian, patriarchal model of family in light of what they considered unrestrained sexuality, other intellectuals conceived of the "companionate family" as a way of democratizing the patriarchal authority within the family and thereby adapting the family to modern conditions. (6) Ben B. Lindsey and Wainwright Evans's Touth in Revolt (1925) reappropriated the term "companionate marriage," once used to designate a childless marriage, to describe a relationship defined by a "condition of mutual independence and respect between persons who might not have maintained it in [conventional] marriage" (Lindsey and Evans 1925, 210). (7) Lindsey and Evans's model mostly addressed the companionate nature emerging in modern marriages, putting a heavy emphasis on open communication between partners and sexual gratification for men and women alike (Mintz and Kellogg 1988, 115). But this call for a democratized marriage was widely reinforced in other sectors of the family as well, such as the democratization of parent-child relations, which, following a rise in teenage expendable income in the 1920s, were becoming more intimate and expressive as children gained increasing independence from parental supervision (Mintz and Kellogg 1988, 118). Harvey Locke and Chicago School sociologist Ernest Burgess argued in The Family (1945) that the family of the modern period was transitioning "from [a] despotic to [a] democratic" organization and that the emerging companionate model of family was characterized by "democracy in family decisions, with a voice and a vote by the children" (Burgess and Locke 1945, 26, 716). In both intellectual models and lived experience, the American family was slowly loosening the hierarchical structures that typified its organization in the nineteenth century, leading the family closer and closer to becoming a locus of collective practice.

The companionate family essentially rearticulates the institution as an accommodating social space, more a network of affiliation than a monolith under one controlling power. And this bears, paradoxically, on the Sternwoods. The Sternwoods are hardly "companionate" in any conventional sense, as the General concedes with his characterization of his daughters' ruthless and sociopathic tendencies. But unlike Marlowe's other clients who are at war internally, the Sternwoods do demonstrate a flattened social structure akin to the companionate family outlined by Lindsey and Evans. This dynamic is established in the first mystery of the plot, the objective of Marlowe's hiring, which I mentioned earlier in the context of Marlowe's role as surrogate son. During Marlowe's first visit to the family's estate, the General tasks him with the blackmail case--but before Marlowe leaves the grounds, Vivian is already steering him toward the disappearance of Rusty Regan. "Rusty shouldn't have gone off like that. Dad feels very badly about it, although he won't say so. Or did he?" Vivian trawls. Marlowe and Vivian parry for several paragraphs. She continues to press for the disappearance case while he coyly protects the General's confidentiality, equivocating, "He said something about it" and "Yes and no" (Chandler 1976, 18). Marlowe does not yet realize that the General and Vivian in fact share the same goal. What at first seems a marker of familial fragmentation, Marlowe discovers at the end of The Big Sleep, is instead a common if uncoordinated set of interests. Despite the General's authoritarian title, the Sternwoods have no central authority. In this respect, their modern family offers Marlowe a collective life that is unavailable to George Peters, whose work for the Carne Organization demands trading hardboiled free agency for a managed, bureaucratic position. These new configurations of family, represented by the Sternwoods' unruly collectivity, allow Marlowe his identity while still affording him the collective life he desires. In other words, the Sternwoods demonstrate a model of family that mediates the polarities of pure alienation and monolithic conformity--the central tension modernist aesthetics translates as the dialectic of fragment and totality--and that offers Marlowe a path for negotiating hardboiled self-determination and his wish for collective experience.

However, it is also important to recognize that Marlowe's suppressed desire for the Sternwoods signals an alternative understanding of family as well, one that broadens the gender-normative bonds of sentimental or Victorian renderings of the institution. In asserting himself amid the blood ties shared by the General, Vivian, and Carmen, Marlowe reorganizes the family even further than the "companionate" model, which retains the home as a traditional site of domestic relations. In so doing, he participates in the moderns' innovations in the family form that strove to radically alter the institution. Lindsey and Evans, for example, foresaw a future in which unwed motherhood and trial marriages would emerge as dominant family models (1925, 169). And British activist Edith Ellis, married to the famous sex researcher Havelock Ellis, advocated a system of "semi-detached marriage" in which marital "experimentalists" could balance shared experiences and independence with separate living spaces (Ellis 1921, 25). The widespread engagement with such reformulations of family into a more flexible, often more radical institution were especially relevant in the United States where debates between reformers and progressives over the nature of the family were becoming increasingly vigorous and more public in profile.

Marlowe's intervention, informed by the moderns' innovations of the family form, is to assert choice as the operating principle of family. In this way, the open tension with the Sternwoods flouts what Judith Butler calls "normative principles of kinship." Noting the "kinship trouble" at the heart of Antigone, Butler writes, "From the presumption that one cannot--or ought not to--choose one's closest family members as one's lovers and marital partners, it does not follow that the bonds of kinship that are possible assume any particular form" (2000, 66). Choice also prevails in Kath Weston's study of the gay family discourses that emerged in the 1980s. Such families and their social discourses, Weston says, emphasize the notion of "chosen families": these groupings are "units of affiliation" which "were not restricted to person-to-person ties. Individuals occasionally added entire groups with preexisting, multiplex connections among members" (1991, 1, 109). "By opening the door to the creation of families different in kind and composition," Weston argues, "choice assigned kinship to the realm of free will and inclination" (no). For Weston, the family is an ever-evolving, ever-expanding body of experience and solidarity.

Marlowe, by rejecting the sentimental family's normative organization and simultaneously expressing his desire for the collective experience of family, explores the possible social forms that would be created by freer ligatures of family. His solution--suppressed like his desire for the family, and for the same reasons of genre and readership--is to grasp at a form of family that expands the companionate model's network of affiliation across bloodlines, a form within which his identification with the Sternwoods would be reciprocated and recognized. It is a family, as West might say, that is "different in kind and composition" (1991, 110).

Marlowe's is a utopian understanding of family that accompanies the moderns' renovations of the institution. Even Weston's "units of affiliation" of the 1980s draw on the work of moderns, such as Burgess and Locke's wartime study of the family. Trying to understand the residual and emergent forms of modern family and especially its prospects in moving from the Depression into a postwar future, Burgess and Locke found that "the American family is moving toward the companionship type of family with its emphasis on affection and consensus" (1945, 28). This assessment reformulates family from being a blood tie toward the "units of affiliation" that Weston would later identify. But above all, Burgess and Locke locate choice as the central feature of the emergent companionate family: "The family has a dynamic function in being critical and selective in making its own choices. In short, each family as a cultural unit has an opportunity and a responsibility of developing a type of family according to its own aspirations and objectives" (736). As with Weston's, Burgess and Locke's emergent family is essentially a utopian formation: both emphasize voluntary participation over authority and discipline, place each party responsible for the social ideal, and, most importantly, hold out the potential for new modes of social organization. Given that Burgess and Locke study precisely the wartime period of Marlowe's suppressed wish for the Sternwoods' family, Marlowe's desire for collectivity takes on this same utopian hue.

Marlowe's longing for the Sternwoods' collective life is a dialectical amalgam of traditional family channeled through the hardboiled genre's entanglement with immigrant readership and through these radical models of family--the political ambivalence of the genre captured in the political tensions within the institution itself. As Fredric Jameson says of the immigrant family in The Godfather in his essay "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture" (1979), a utopian element emerges "in the family itself, seen as a figure of collectivity and as the object of Utopian longing, if not Utopian envy.... In the United States, indeed, ethnic groups are not only the object of prejudice, they are also the object of envy" (1992, 43). The Sternwoods--never ethnically identified, though readers might attribute a WASPy air to their social environment--can stand in for this enviable collective figure because of the generic legacy established in Black Mask's immigrant readership. In striking a surrogate filial pose to loosen the boundaries of the traditional family into a more flexible institution, Marlowe's identification with the Sternwoods only deepens the utopian element Jameson locates in the family.

With the Sternwoods modeling the possibility of an unruly collectivity, it is telling that Chandler never granted his hero the collective life that was Marlowe's suppressed desire, even though he tinkered with just such a resolution in the "Poodle Springs" narrative. Chandler's denial of family for Marlowe speaks to core problems of wish fulfillment and Utopian thought. In Archaeologies of the Future (2005), Jameson writes, "Wish-fulfillments are after all by definition never real fulfillments of desire; and must presumably always be marked by the hollowness of absence or failure at the heart of their most dearly fantasized visions" (2005, 83). He goes on to argue that such Utopian desire "must be concrete and ongoing, without being defeatist or incapacitating; it might therefore be better to follow an aesthetic paradigm and to assert that not only the production of the unresolvable contradiction is the fundamental process, but that we must imagine some form of gratification inherent in this very confrontation with pessimism and the impossible" (2005, 84). In this way, Chandler's continual deferral of collective life for Marlowe dramatizes the impossibility of his Utopian wish. The synoptic reading reveals that the gap between the detective and family only widens after the Sternwoods are followed by a line of cannibalizing clans, demonstrating the very confrontation with the impossible that is held open throughout the Marlowe novels. Perhaps another reason that Chandler abandoned the "Poodle Springs" conceit was not so much that marriage and family were "quite out of character" for Marlowe, but that to fulfill the detective's wish for collective life would have undone the central tension of the Marlowe novels--the tension between alienation and the monolith, between the fragment and totality--that are also the defining tensions of aesthetic modernism and of modern life.


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Burgess, Ernest W., and Harvey J. Locke. 1945. The Family: From Institution to Companionship. Chicago: American Book Company.

Butler, Judith. 2000. Antigone's Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cassuto, Leonard. 2009. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chandler, Raymond. 1964. Killer in the Rain, edited by Philip Durham. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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To Nicole LaRose--my mentor, my friend, my fellow Gator. Her study of utopian kinship inspired this project; indeed, she modeled "chosen family" for me and all those who knew her.

(1) Davis writes, "Marlowe, the avenging burgher, totters precariously on the precipice of fascist paranoia. Each successive Chandler novel focuses on a new target of Marlowe's dislike: Blacks, Asians, gays, 'greasers,' and, always, women. In this regard, it is useful to recall the genealogy of the hardboiled detective hero: the special 1923 issue of The Black Mask on the Ku Klux Klan that introduced Carroll John Daly's nativist detective 'Race Williams' as the prototype of tough guy crusaders against (foreign-born) corruption" (1990, 91n42).

(2) Marlowe clears five hundred dollars for working the General's blackmail case. But in pursuing a lead on Mona Mars that he believes will bring him to Rusty Regan, Marlowe promises the anemic sleuth Harry Jones two hundred dollars for information, a fee he pays out of his own pocket. When Harry meets a grisly end at the hands of Canino, Eddie Mars's muscle, Marlowe chivalrously gives the money to Harry's girlfriend Agnes.

(3) See, for example, Rzepka 2000, 2005.

(4) Hutner catalogues the family sagas that typified the late 1930s: Sylvia Chatfield Bates's The Long Way Home (1937), Mari Sandoz's Slogum House (1937), Michael Foster's American Dream (1937), Stuart Engstrand's The Invaders (1937), William Maxell's They Came Like Swallows (1937), Rose Wilder Lane's Free Land (1938), Agnes Sligh Turnbull's Remember the End (1938), Margaret Barnes's Wisdom's Gate (1938), Fannie Cook's The Hill Grows Steeper (1938), Anne Parish's Mr. Despondency's Daughter (1938), Sidney Meller's Roots in the Sky (1938), Charles Norris's Bricks without Straw (1938), Sinclair Lewis's The Prodigal Parents (1938), and Hilda Morris's The Main Stream (1939) (Hutner 2009, 181-82). Of these, only Sinclair Lewis retains noteworthiness among today's readers, but Hutner's project is to recover the spectrum of texts that would have appealed to the professional middle class. Accordingly, his catalogue provides an index of the depth and breadth of the family saga in late 1930s American fiction--an index that only deepens when we also consider other genres outside of Hutner's purview, such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House family series, which was prominent throughout the 1930s.

(5) See Mintz and Kellogg's Domestic Revolutions (1988, 137). Mintz and Kellogg also show that the Depression had one positive effect on the family: it diminished the divorce rates that had been rising steadily from 1900 to 1930, although they add that the enervated divorce rates were partly offset by an equally troubling increase in the rate of familial desertion (136).

(6) For example, in The Family (1943), Ernest W. Burgess and Harvey J. Locke write that such reassertions of patriarchal authority misdiagnosed emergent models of family as unstable and even immoral, but only because such reformers failed "to perceive that the present trends represent not only disorganization but reorganization. {The reformer} ignores the fact that the same forces which find expression in family instability are creating a family unity based neither upon compulsion nor upon contract but upon the binding affections and loyalties growing out of intimate associations in the companionship family" (1945, 7x5).

(7) Though his advocacy for companionate marriage and his openness to unwed motherhood and trial marriage mark progressive formulations of family, Lindsey, a judge in Denver's juvenile courts, espoused some markedly conservative views as well. He advocated the sterilization of unfit parents and tried to piggyback his models of marriage and parenting onto the 1920s jingoism of "One Hundred Percent Americanism" as a means of producing a "dominant racial strain" (Lindsey and Evans 1925, 346-47, 358).

WESLEY BEAL is Assistant Professor of English at Lyon College and serves as president of the John Dos Passos Society. He has recently completed a book on the emergence of networks in American modernism. His work has appeared in American Literary History, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Genre, and Interdisciplinary Literary Studies.
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Title Annotation:ESSAYS
Author:Beal, Wesley
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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