In Playing In the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Toni Morrison studies the impact of African slaves and their descendants on “canonical American literature,” primarily produced by white male writers. This “black presence” is often absent in works that celebrate the United States as a nation of free and equal citizens. The myth of America as the New World can only be sustained by the refusal to acknowledge people who were brought to this country against their will and as enslaved individuals more than four hundred years ago. By enforcing the ideal of “invisibility through silence,” writers create ghostly lacunas, allowing “the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”
Hispanics have posed a similar problem in the U.S. West, where people of Spanish and Mexican descent are sometimes referred to as “undocumented workers” or “illegal aliens.” The politicians and voters who use these terms imagine immigrants sneaking into the country and disappearing into ethnic neighborhoods and communities, undetected by legal residents and law enforcement agencies. The Hispanic presence is also depicted as a menacing absence in regional western literature. One such case is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), a classic example of American noir that features a Mexican American family living in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
Chandler portrays the city as a place where desperate people do anything to ensure their personal and economic survival. While working for his client, General Sternwood, private investigator Philip Marlowe discovers that nothing is what it seems to be. A rare book store is actually a front for a pornographic lending library. A dilapidated mansion houses an illegal gambling den. A seemingly innocent woman is really a dangerous femme fatale. Wherever Marlowe goes, he encounters serpents in the Garden of Eden.
The Sternwood family gives truth to the saying that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. The General is an oil baron who lives in a modern-day castle, symbolizing his wealth and social respectability. His daughter Carmen is a drug addict being blackmailed by a man with a glass eye. Meanwhile, his other daughter, Vivian, is cheating on her husband. The estate is designed in the faux Spanish style—with tile floors and wrought-iron railings—referencing the European empire that once ruled California. It also resembles Greystone Mansion, built by real-life oil tycoon Edward Doheny (Greystone/Sternwood). The property later became notorious as the site where Ned Doheny, Jr. and his male secretary (as well as rumored lover) died in an alleged murder-suicide pact.
The Big Sleep exposes the guilty deeds and sordid histories of the city’s so-called upper-class. Yet one mystery still remains unsolved: the origin of the Sternwood family. The first clue appears in the opening chapter when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood estate, and a butler ushers him into the main hallway. The detective notices a large oil painting hanging below “two bullet-torn or moth-eaten cavalry pennants crossed in a glass frame.” The picture features a man posing in a military uniform. Marlowe identifies the subject as someone who fought during “the Mexican war. The officer had a neat black imperial, black mustachios [and] coal-black eyes…. I thought this might be General Sternwood’s grandfather” (4).
Caucasian writers have been fantasizing about the elimination of the Hispanic presence since the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.
The black eyes and swarthy appearance indicate that the officer is a non-Caucasian. Mexican cavalry commanders often remained in California after the war, marrying wealthy white women in order to maintain their economic standing and social status. This theory explains another unanswered question of why the current General has given one daughter the Anglo-Saxon name Vivian and the other one the Hispanic name Carmen. The painting is also a subtle reminder that Catholic missionaries and military leaders used religious iconography and visual symbols of authority to convert and subdue non-Spanish-speaking natives when they first arrived in California.
Unions between high-ranking Mexican military officers and daughters of prosperous American families created “ethnic alliances,” allowing whites to gain access to Mexican wealth, while enabling the newly defeated Mexican aristocracy to become absorbed within the expanding white power structure. One historian views these matrimonial mergers from a noir perspective, suggesting that women were essentially trafficked “between the old and the emerging ruling classes,” or even sold into sexual slavery.
This model of interethnic relations is consistent with Chandler’s portrayal of California as a site of contested space where races and empires have battled for centuries to control the region’s people and natural resources. The Spanish colonization of Native America was followed by Mexico’s brief period of rule, its secularization of Catholic missions, and the enrichment of its landed gentry. The Mexican-American War ended with whites and rancheros continuing to struggle for economic and political dominance. The subsequent Gold Rush led to a new form of environmental exploitation. It was succeeded by the discovery of oil in the late nineteenth century. By the time Chandler published The Big Sleep that industry had begun to decline.
Evidence in the novel suggests that the original General married his daughter to a white man named Sternwood to secure the fortunes of the newly dispossessed Mexican gentry. The couple had a son (Marlowe’s employer) who at some point in the past married for money. In the first chapter, the reader learns that Sternwood got married in his fifties to a younger woman, who bore him two children and later died (13). Chandler never explains what caused the wife’s premature demise, thus creating another unsolved mystery. But he indicates that the wife had money of her own, which she bequeathed to her daughters in her will (14). The General is unable to access this money, though he may have invested part of her remaining fortune in the oil business. The Sternwood derricks appear in the background throughout the novel, uneasily coexisting with the palm trees and Southern California foothills.
The Spanish colonization of the region “conferred upon Mexicans a ‘white’ racial status.” Thus, anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited marriage between Caucasians and blacks or Asian Americans, wouldn’t have applied to the Sternwoods. Indeed, Chandler had written an earlier short story entitled “Spanish Blood” (1935), featuring Los Angeles policeman Sam Delaguerre. The protagonist is proud of his grandfather, deeming him “one of the best sheriffs this county ever had.” He is equivalently proud of his European lineage, claiming, “My blood is Spanish, pure Spanish. Not nigger-Mex and not Yaqui-Mex.”
Some Americans questioned the purity of the Mexican gentry, who identified as white Europeans. Chandler portrays Delaguerre as one of the good guys—a prototype for Marlowe, “who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” But he also describes the character as “very brown” (22). Delaguerre pursues a Filipino man called the Caliente Kid, a Spanish-speaking criminal who is dark like the hero (44, 46). The similarity between the “spig” and the “flip” (53, 46) blurs the distinction between Spaniards and Filipinos. Chandler also portrays General Sternwood and his daughters as if they were the products of miscegenation, with the alleged mental and physical defects sometimes attributed to mixed-race people. Confined to a wheelchair, Marlowe’s employer blames his poor health on a life of debauchery (9). Unlike Vivian, his Spanish-named daughter, Carmen, has certain abnormalities, including pointed incisor teeth and thumbs that lack the prehensile ability to grasp objects, a quality found in the most evolved species of mammals. Members of the Mexican ranchero elite were referred to as gente de razon (people of reason), suggesting that they were more refined and intelligent than mestizos and working-class peons. However, Carmen is intellectually stunted, as well as subject to seizures (220), indicating that she is either epileptic or mentally “abnormal” (223, 229).
Chandler was an admitted Anglophile and the non-white characters who appear in his fiction are usually associated with deviance, decadence, and moral corruption.
Westward expansion seemed to confirm that the U.S. had a divine right to the land stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. However, one historian has argued that “the desperate effort of the vanquished to maintain their birthright even in defeat [explains] the central meaning of Manifest Destiny.” That effort appears to be doomed by the end of The Big Sleep. The oil wells are “no longer pumping” (218), suggesting that the general’s fortune has been depleted. His daughters are childless, and have failed to make matrimonial alliances that would secure the fortunes of the next generation.
A Protestant, Chandler once admitted that he “grew up with a terrible contempt for Catholics.” But noir has more in common with the Catholic notion of eternal sin than with the Protestant belief in the improvability of the human race and Manifest Destiny’s triumphal narrative of predestination. As a side note, the title for the Spanish version of the novel, El Sueño Eterno, equates death with eternal oblivion. In The Big Sleep, California is a postlapsarian Eden, inhabited by people who are deeply flawed. “Vivian” alludes to the Lady of the Lake, an enchantress who ruled the mythical kingdom of Avalon. Ironically, “Carmen” means “garden” in Spanish. The novel is a contemporary urban version of the medieval romance. Marlowe is the knight who has been hired to rescue the general’s daughters, and Los Angeles is the corrupt Arthurian realm in which these seductresses masquerade as damsels in distress.
This Anglo-Saxon myth also has its counterpart in Spanish renaissance literature. The name “California” was first used to refer to the region by Garci Rodriguez Ordóñez de Montalvo in his sixteenth-century medieval romance, Las sergas de esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián). Fittingly, the novel’s climactic scene occurs in an abandoned oil field, which appears “lonely as a churchyard” (218). The Catholic missions have been replaced by Sternwood’s derricks, and at the bottom of one of the wells lays the body of a white man whom Carmen has killed.
The foreshadowed extinction of the Sternwood family may be a form of white wish-fulfillment. Caucasian writers have been fantasizing about the elimination of the Hispanic presence since the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Morrison suggests that the alleged savagery of African slaves, and later African American men and women, made it necessary to erase their existence in literary and artistic works that depicted idealized versions of American civilization. White authors who wrote about California and the U.S. West were faced with the opposite problem. Many of the Spaniards and Mexicans who had earlier resided in the region—the Catholic clergy and military elite, the wealthy rancheros and other landed gentry—were more “civilized” than poor whites who immigrated there in the late 1840s and afterward, squatting on property they didn’t own and plundering the area’s mineral resources. Writers had to ignore this historical fact, or reimagine Mexicans after the war as being members of a supposed inferior race.
Chandler was an admitted Anglophile and the non-white characters who appear in his fiction are usually associated with deviance, decadence, and moral corruption. In addition to the Hispanic presence, there are numerous references to the Orient, which contributes to The Big Sleep’s sinister atmosphere. However, most of the characters in Chandler’s novels are white, and they commit the majority of violent acts and criminal misdeeds. The hard-boiled detective novel can be read as the second chapter in frontier history, indicating how the land-grabbers, cattle rustlers, and gunslingers in the early U.S. West moved to cities such as Los Angeles, where they evolved into the blackmailers, bootleggers, and gangsters of the 1930s and ’40s.
In part, Chandler blames members of the degenerating Sternwood clan for the evils in society, pitting the characters against a white private eye and police department in a racial conflict that has continued since the end of the Mexican-American War. Frequently, noir examines issues about “national belonging” and racial dispossession. As a nation with competing claims to the region in The Big Sleep, Mexico serves as a “spatial other to the United States.” It is “American noir’s geopolitical unconscious,” its dark double; an invisible threat to the nation—not only in Chandler’s fiction, but in our current culture as well.
 Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 4-5, 10.
 Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939; (reprint, New York: Vintage, 1988), 4. Subsequent references to this edition appear within the text of the essay.
 Chandler worked for a California oil company from 1922 to 1932. He was fascinated by the Doheny murder case, which Marlowe alludes to in The High Window (1942). See Robert F. Moss, ed., Raymond Chandler: A Literary Reference (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003), 88-98.
 Despite her name, Vivian also has dark and wiry hair, as well as the same “hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall” (17).
 Lisbeth Haas, “Indigenous Peoples Under Colonial Rule,” in Blake Allmendinger, ed., A History of California Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 37.
 Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 (Berkeley: UC Press, 1966; reprint, 1998), 124-25.
 Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: UC Press, 1994), 58. William Deverell also suggests that these unions were seldom based on mutual affection. “Many of the genteel Californios… displayed unusual, though largely unspoken, hostility toward Americans. It was rumored that they washed their hands after touching American money.” See Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: UC Press, 2004), 15.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 4, 58.
 Raymond Chandler, “Spanish Blood,” 1935; reprint. in The Simple Art of Murder (New York: Vintage), 40. Subsequent references to this edition appear parenthetically within the text of the essay.
 Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines, 4.
 Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in The Simple Art of Murder, 18.
 Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), xiv; and Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines 46.
 Pitt, The Decline of the Californios, xiii.
 Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Charles Morton, dated 1 January 1945. As cited in Moss, Raymond Chandler, 15.
 Vincent Pérez, “Spanish and Mexican Literature,” in Allmendinger, ed., A History of California Literature, 43.
 See Frank McShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Dutton,1976); William Marling, Raymond Chandler (Boston: Twayne, 1986); and Judith Freeman, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (New York: Pantheon, 2007).
 Jonathan Auerbach, Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 15, 24, 123.
Blake Allmendinger is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in western American literature. His books include The Cowboy (Oxford, 1992), Ten Most Wanted (Routledge, 1998), Inventing the African American West (Nebraska, 2005), The Melon Capital of the World: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2015), and A History of California Literature (Cambridge, 2016).
Copyright: © 2018 Blake Allmendinger. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/