not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
This post is copied from my Goodreads review:
Within the first page of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, private detective Philip Marlowe is at the mansion of General Sternwood, an elderly millionaire, viewing a stained-glass panel that depicts “a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree.” Marlowe wryly notes that the knight “was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere… He didn’t seem to be really trying.” Later, surprised at home by one of General Sternwood’s daughters, he glances at a game in progress on his chess board: “The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. it wasn’t a game for knights.”
These two moments are the closest Chandler gets to committing any acts of overt symbolism in his otherwise no-nonsense crime novel, but it’s worth noting just how much he’s able to do with these two passages: we understand how Marlowe’s own view of the case and his place within it shifts, and at the same time we get a neat summation of Chandler’s understanding of the detective novel. In one sense, his Marlowe novels are stories of a modern knight-errant, a man with a stringent and singular moral code attempting to bring order to a chaotic world. In another sense, they’re a game of chess: a finite number of familiar pieces that can be rearranged in a near-infinite number of ways.
Chandler’s method for telling these stories is simplicity itself: Marlowe goes to a location, talks to a person, and gets a piece of information that sends him to a new location, where he talks to another person. In between these conversations, various people will try to bribe, murder, or seduce Marlowe, all of which attempts he casually rebuffs with the exact same humorous cynicism, and while these may seem thrilling in the moment, they’re always just prelude and epilogue: the real thrills always come from the conversations, from what Marlowe learns that changes his understanding of the case. The thrill isn’t in whether Marlowe is going to live (of course he will, he’s telling us the story) or whether he’s going to solve the case (of course he will, we’re reading a detective novel), but what the truth of the case will turn out to be, how the world will be arranged when the pieces fall into place.
Chandler’s secret to keeping this old-as-Sherlock-Holmes formula entertaining is to tell it through a character who knows it’s a formula, who has come to see the world as a dreary procession of people coming through his door to get him involved in some trouble or another. This is the first novel in which Marlowe appears, and he’s already as old and world-weary as Humphrey Bogart would make him appear in the film adaptation (co-written by a handful of screenwriters that include literary titan William Faulkner and pulp sci-fi legend Leigh Brackett, whose original works would actually form a pretty good Venn diagram with Chandler right in the middle). He’s never shocked by a twist, or by the cruelty of the people he meets–he’s seen it all before. But you get the sense, with the way he drinks and the way he turns any hint of intimacy into a weapon, that if the world has lost the ability to shock him, it hasn’t lost the ability to hurt him.
And why does it still hurt him? Because behind the practiced cynicism, he can’t stop caring, behind his seen-it-all complaints about how broken and ugly the world is, he can’t stop trying to put it back together, in his doomed and hopeless way. It goes back to the stained-glass knight attempting to rescue a stained-glass lady that he sees in the novel’s first page, the passage that I quoted at the beginning of this review. Because as the ellipsis shows, there’s one sentence I left out of the middle of that quote: “I stood there and thought that if I lived in that house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.”