Detectives in Shining Armour: The Strange Chivalry of Noir Fiction
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
From men in trench coats and fedoras holding smoking guns, to sultry woman emerging from the fog, noir fiction has some of the most iconic imagery of any literary genre. Deeply indebted to its cinematic counterpoint, film noir, noir fiction easily conjures up its aesthetic world. It’s a modern, gritty and urban world, one which is unlikely to be confused with that of medieval romances. Knights in shining armour, and pious damsels waving handkerchiefs are hardly the fare of the hardboiled detective. Yet, when it comes to courtly romances and noir fiction, the two are sometimes more closely linked than might be expected, and this is never more clear than in the works of Raymond Chandler.
Chandler is best remembered as one of the founders of the hardboiled school of detective fiction. His style was instrumental in shaping the genre. He perfectly captures the gritty urban landscape of post-Prohibition Los Angeles, and populates his stories with the suave criminals, femme fatales, and renegade investigators that are so central to the genre. Despite this, Chandler’s stories often harken back to the tales of medieval knights and courtly romances. Even his iconic protagonist, Philip Marlowe, was originally named Philip Mallory, a nod to the author of Le Morte Darthur, Thomas Malory.
Although he changed his mind on Marlowe’s name Chandler scattered many other references
throughout his books, like clues to his own private joke. They are to be found in characters with names like Derace Kingsley, and Orfamay Quest, or in the book titles, such as with The Lady in the Lake. However, Chandler goes far beyond sprinkling his texts with offbeat medieval references. Rather, he places romantic ideals of chivalry at the very core of his books. His leading man, Philip Marlowe, may have many of the vices and flaws so characteristic of hardboiled detectives, he is world-weary, alcoholic, and reclusive, but through the cigarette smoke and grimaces, Marlowe manages to emerge as a knight in shining armour. Against the backdrop of the urban underbelly of 1940’s L.A., Chandler’s Marlowe brings a surprisingly old-world chivalric heroism to bare. Surrounded by crime and corruption, Marlowe maintains a moral high ground. He refuses to accept jobs that he considers unethical, he keeps a clean mouth, and an empty bed. These characteristics, along with his loyalty, determination, and sense of duty, soon become an almost photo finish for the code of chivalry. Marlowe may not be the exact medieval ideal of a goodly and chaste knight, serving his liege lord, embarking on quests to defend a lady’s honour, but he’s certainly not far off.
Moreover, even though Marlowe’s quests take the form of investigations, uncovering blackmailers, solving murders, exposing corruption, and so on, Chandler consistently incorporates imagery and themes from medieval stories, in particular the Arthurian myth cycle. Within the opening pages of his first novel The Big Sleep, Chandler firmly establishes the importance of this kind of imagery to his books. As Marlowe enters the house of his potential employer General Sternwood, he is immediately met with
"[A] broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that ties the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in that house, I would sooner or later have to climb up here and help him. He didn’t seems to be really trying."
Within the first five pages, Chandler has set up the perfect visual for his use of medieval tropes, a modern house with a gaudy stained glass window, depicting a medieval scene that fails to deliver on its heroic promise. It perfectly sums up the book’s approach of taking romantic ideals and transplants them into a tarnished and garish world, where they look both overly sentimental and deeply impractical, yet somehow still relevant to our protagonist.
Straight after this moment, the story introduces us to General Sternwood, a Fisher King figure. He is old and venerable but also crippled and diminishing, surrounded by the declining waste of his oil company. Sternwood sets Marlowe the task of restoring peace and order to his kingdom, by tracking down a blackmailer. The case, and indeed the quest, follows on from there and Chandler continues integrating his romantic medieval influences throughout the story, and throughout all his books.
The clash of traditional English courtly attitudes and modern American landscape and society found in Chandler’s books seems to have had some basis in Chandler’s own experiences. Although Chandler was American born and raised, he and his mother moved to London when he was twelve. There he joined Edwardian society, he attended Dulwich College, a public school that was almost simultaneously producing such iconic English authors as P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Forester. This experience of English society, with its deep roots in courtly life and chivalric conventions would stay with Chandler after he returned to America, and began writing detective stories. While the stories capture a very particular era of American life, Marlowe himself feels like an anachronism within them. He brings an endearing sense of old fashioned principles to a city of moral abandon. Marlowe notes this when he says in The Big Sleep,
"I looked at the chessboard. 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."
It’s this sense of being out of place, striving for a higher ideal of life while working among the seediest and most corrupt society L.A. has to offer, that makes Marlowe an utterly charming lead. The wise-cracking, world-weary knight of L.A. While Chandler’s books are some of the most overt examples of medieval elements in noir fiction, there have been plenty of other works that have combined the two in unusual and exciting ways. Perhaps among the most unexpected of these are Chester Himes’ detective stories, beginning with A Rage in Harlem. If Chandler’s work represents the idealistic Arthurian cycle, then Himes’ veers wildly towards the chaotic absurdity of Don Quixote. Himes, like Cervantes, takes the tropes of his given genre and pushes them to their outermost limit. His novels are bombastic, gruesome, and fatalistic. His stories are filled with graphic and even cartoonish violence, and his characters are mesmerizingly outlandish. Similar to Don Quixote, Himes’ stories are filled with trigger-happy brutality, hallucinatory states, and comic upendings of expectations. The two also share a sense of blurring between the rational and the absurd. Himes’ once noted on his own experience of writing the books:
"I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference."
Himes’ leading detective duo, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, are a long
way from the honorable Marlowe. They’re not fussy about using violence, even on the
weak, and they are happy to turn a blind eye to a great deal of crime and violence. Yet
in the midst of all this, there is a certain quality of moral upstanding to them, they are
defenders of the downtrodden and their excesses are in the course of attaining good. They are certainly chaotic, with a sense of the blind leading the blind, however if we’re looking for truly Quixotic leads, the best place to find them is in Himes’ first detective novel A Rage in Harlem. In this book Coffin Ed and Gravedigger do feature but only as secondary characters, instead the protagonists are Jackson and his twin brother Goldy. The story centres around Jackson, a newcomer to New York, who is introduced to a foolproof scheme for making money by his girlfriend Imabelle. When the plot unsurprisingly goes awry, Jackson finds himself alone, broke, and on the run from the law.
Jackson sets out on a frantic quest to clear his name, restore his lost money, and rescue his damsel who he is sure must be in distress. He enlists the help of his twin brother Goldy, a conman who spends his days dressed as a Sister of Mercy, selling tickets to heaven. The two embark on a series of increasingly catastrophic attempts to resolve Jackson’s woes. The story spirals out of control, the violence becomes graphic and even cartoonish, the characters become more and more bizarre, and throughout out it all Jackson remains immovable in his faith in Imabelle and her moral upstanding. He refuses to accept a world where she is not the courtly ideal of a woman, and he is willing to do anything to serve her. Like Quixote, he is deluded in his attempts at chivalry in a world not made for it, which leads to violent and devastating consequences. When Jackson is running away from a particularly calamitous escape Himes even describes him saying,
"He thrashed and wriggled in a blind panic, like a black Don Quixote fighting two big warehouses singlehanded."
Himes’ work offers a counterpoint to Chandler’s. In Chandler’s novels, Philip Marlowe’s chivalry is portrayed as a kind of balm for a broken world. As a private investigator, what keeps him at arm’s length from the corruption and criminality that he is surrounded by, is his own moral integrity. In this way, although something of an anachronism, Marlowe is the remedy needed for a modern and broken world. Marlowe understands the world around him but chooses to act differently. On the other hand, in A Rage in Harlem, Himes sketches out Jackson as someone with the all idealism of a courtly romance, but with none of the understanding or strength of character to keep him on the right path. In both cases, we see men attempting to grapple with a corrupt and criminal world, and looking back to a more idealistic era to find a way through. In this way, the chivalric knight is an integral part of these, and many other noir fiction stories. As Chandler wrote in his essay The Simple Art of
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything."
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published on July 31, 2017.