“What did this Regan fellow have that bored into him so?”
The butler looked at me levelly and yet with a queer lack of expression. “Youth, sir,” he said. “And the soldier’s eye.”
“Like yours,” I said.
“If I may say so, sir, not unlike yours.”
— The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
As I’m sure I’m not the first one to point out, The Big Sleep is obsessed with queer themes, both explicit and implicit. One of the novel’s central mysteries is, precisely, homosexuality. The relationship between a purveyor of dirty books named Geiger and his male lover is at the root of a number of the murderous confusions and complications in the early part of the narrative.
The novel treats its avowedly gay men with a casual disdain; the decadently portly Geiger is a recognizable stereotype, while his more masculine lover is dismissed with a sneer by Philip Marlowe, who comments that fags can’t hit hard, no matter what they look like. But the homophobia is belied by — or perhaps meant to excuse — the way in which intense bonds between putatively heterosexual men form the emotional core of the novel. As the quotation above indicates, the novel is in large part driven by the love-at-first-sight simpatico between Marlowe and his client, General Sternwood. That sympatico is echoed in Sternwood’s similar passion for his missing son-in-law, Rusty Regan, whom he ultimately asks Marlowe to find.
Moreoever, Regan and Marlowe are doubled not only because of their place in General Sternwood’s affections, but because of their imperviousness to heterosexual escapades. Regan, who married the General’s daughter Vivian Sternwood, was also, we learn at the novel’s conclusion, propositioned by the general’s other daughter, Caroline. When Regan refused her, she killed him. Later chronologically (though earlier in the novel), Caroline shows up in Marlowe’s room, naked, and attempts to seduce him. He kicks her out, she calls him an unrepeatable name which is probably “faggot” — and later she tries to kill him.
Marlowe and Regan are “soldiers”, then, because they (a) are beloved of the General and (b) do not lust after his corrupting daughter. The appellation “faggot” is carefully erased and thereby emphasized; it is Marlowe’s unmentionable sin which is also his unmentionable distinction. By the same token, Vivian Regan’s unnaturalness is reflected in the fact that she cares about her sister more than her husband; and so tries to cover up the latter’s murder to protect the former. The whole plot, then, is powered by same-sex investments and love. In comparison, most of the heterosexual attachments in the novel — such as those between Victoria and Rusty — seem decidedly half-assed. Marlowe’s main romantic interest is barely a flicker in the novel; she appears late, wearing a platinum wig to cover her short-cropped butch cut, which prompts Marlowe to give her the campy appellation Silver-Wig. The supposed love interest, then, is effectively a false front covering gender deviance covering a nonentity. It’s as if Chandler is afraid that if he spent too much time on her, folks might start to realize that she isn’t a “she” at all.
It would be fairly easy to do an Eve Sedgwick inspired reading and draw the lines between Chandler’s romanticization of homoerotic bonds between men and his homophobia and misogyny. For Sedgwick, it would certainly be no surprise that a book which writes with such repressed approval of soldiers eying each other should figure evil as a giggling vindictive ultra-femme madwoman. The clean passion of men for men is always threatened by these atrociously pleasurable stirrings of femininity.
It’s also interesting to note, though, that there may be a link between the novel’s queerness and and its reputation. The Big Sleep is often thought of as one of the very best examples of detective fiction; it’s virtually attained high art status, in a lot of ways. That status is, I’d argue, not despite the use of homosexuality, but because of it.
In his 2011 book Art and Homosexuality, Christopher Reed argues that the avant garde has long used markers of homosexuality as signs of daring individualism. Sexual deviance can show that an artist is an original, unhindered by convention or bourgeois provincialism. Moreover, the mechanism of the closet can provide a powerful appearance of mastery and genius. The artist, through the deployment of homosexual codes and references, shows himself (or herself) to be “in the know”, and that knowledge is the mark of queer genius — an unusual and unconventional wisdom.
All of this, I think, can be related to the critical success of The Big Sleep. Chandler’s bleak, decadent vision is in large part a bleak decadence of deviant sexuality — the filthy books sold by the gay man; the old General pining for his young acquaintance while rotting among the orchids; Vivian’s tragic love for her unnatural sister. The awareness of and manipulation of homosexuality makes the novel daring, adult, and knowing — an avant garde provocation rather than (or in addition to) a simple genre fable.
Moreover, the novel’s projection of genius is accomplished in large part through a manipulation of tropes associated with gayness. Chandler’s stylistic hallmarks — the careful vivid descriptions, the quick turnabout wit — could almost be lifted from Oscar Wilde, as could the obsession with ugly, hidden truths. The Big Sleep and The Picture of Dorian Gray are different mainly in that Chandler nods more explicitly to the obvious homosexual themes. In both cases, though, there is the impression of dazzling surface facility and deep unsettling knowledge — a sense of idiosyncratic and/or perverse brilliance propelled by the mechanics of the closet.
Detective fiction is built around the knower — and what that knower knows, The Big Sleep suggests, is deviance. “Me, I was part of the nastiness now,” Marlowe thinks, before ruminating feelingly on the idea of General Sternwood lying in bed. To see into the closet is to be one who knows one; to understand is to understand. Chandler’s novel is iconic in part because it believes so fervently in this bedrock algorithm of genre noir, and because its queer lack of expression conceals so transparently its depths of love and loathing.