No Game For Knights

If you haven’t read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, do it.

Chandler helped set the stage for the standards of the detective-noir genre that we take for granted. His flagship character, Philip Marlowe, is oft-emulated, but stands much taller than the copies. Despite his hard-boiled nature, he is not immune to the events that unfold. Overall, The Big Sleep is an exemplar of fiction that metes out a wealth of information rich content with a narrator that is sparse in narration. Most poignantly, it chronicles Marlowe’s struggles against the moral implications of the case presented to him.

If you haven’t read The Big Sleep and are spoiler-averse, it’s probably best if don’t read past this line.


Having been called on by General Guy Sternwood, The story opens on Marlowe, clad in a powder-blue suit, entering the Sternwood mansion for the first time. Above the mansion’s entryway is a “stained-glass panel” that depicts a knight in dark armor trying and failing to free a “lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair;” to which Marlowe remarks: “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 really trying.” Unbeknownst to Marlowe, his conclusion is correct, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that the reader can understand that this knight foreshadows Marlowe’s success with the case at hand.

Marlowe is asked by Sternwood, a cripple on the verge of death, to look into the cause of two promissory notes that tell of his youngest daughter Carmen’s gambling debts to an L.A. bookstore owner. However, the bulk of the story follows the fate of Sternwood eldest daughter’s husband, Rusty Regan, who has disappeared. Regan is believed to have run off with the woman married to Eddy Mars, to whom Regan’s wife is indebted. While not explicitly asked to by general sternwood and despite having already received payment, Marlowe continues to search for Regan.

In this search, Marlowe ends up killing one of Mars’ henchmen, Canino. Marlowe is driven to kill Canino because of the “dignity” that he describes Jones as having. The death of Canino itself is justified further by the necessity of Marlowe’s values. Because he is captured by Canino and then freed by Mona while Canino is out, Marlowe cannot allow her to be killed for freeing him. This calls to mind the image of the knight from the beginning, and more recently, the knight from the chess problem he has yet to solve.

Jones and the knights of lore possess a core of values which guide their actions — not unlike the values that Marlowe professes to Mrs. Regan underpin his continued pursuit of the truth behind Regan’s disappearance: “I do my thinking myself, what there is of it; I risk my whole future, the hatred of the cops and of Eddie Mars and his pals. I dodge bullets and eat saps, and say thank you very much, if you have any more trouble, I hope you’ll think of me, I’ll just leave one of my cards in case anything comes up. I do all this for twenty-five bucks a day-and maybe just a little 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, and that although his two little girls are a trifle wild, as many nice girls are these days, they are not perverts or killers.”

Jones, the various knights, and Marlowe are all additionally identical in that they are “insufficient” in the various tasks they attempt to perform: Jones is too small in stature and weak in body to best Canino physically, so he commits suicide rather than endanger his partner in selling Marlowe information; the stained-glass-knight cannot free the lady from her restraints; the chess problem, according to Marlowe, cannot be solved by the knight; finally, Marlowe is prevented by his sense of righteousness from telling the general that Carmen Sternwood murdered rusty, and is incapable of saving Mrs. Regan from the debt Mars will collect on once the general has passed and his estate is given to her.

We see that Marlowe’s righteousness, which is symbolized by the “powder-blue-suit” he wears to impress the General has become corrupted because of the dirty nature of the case, and his hands have become especially dirty with the unnecessary blood of Canino. Therefore he is no different from the knight in dark armor at the beginning who “didn’t really seem to be trying.”

Chandler tells the whole story at the beginning: A man tries to preserve what he believes to be right in the world, but succeeds only at tarnishing himself.