“I know there are lots of talented bloggers in this group. I have a suggestion for a future post: A proper rebuke to Raymond Chandler’s essay, The Simple Art of Murder. For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s 13 pages and free online as a pdf. It is a scathing indictment of everything this group holds dear. I have a pretentious theory about why I disagree with his take on detective fiction, but I must admit, he makes good (depressingly accurate) points about its literary failings.”
This is the challenge that was issued Friday morning at the Golden Age of Detection page on Facebook by James Scott Byrnside, author of that crackling good self-published locked room mystery, Goodnight Irene.(Have you read it yet? I reviewed it here.)
It seems to me that those of us who champion classic detective fiction tend to put ourselves on the defensive a lot. Whether it’s Howard Haycraft or P.D. James or Insert-Random-Journalist-for-the-Guardian . . . or, yes, Raymond Chandler, there’s enough criticism for the genre out there to allow plenty of opportunity for us to get our whine on.
I decided to meet Scott’s challenge, for three excellent reasons:
- I have often derided Chandler for his opinion, but in true critic’s fashion, I have never actually read the essay.
- I am getting over a cold, and I am bored, bored, bored!!!
- If I write something, does that mean I’m included in the “talented bloggers” list?
Thus, early this morning, I awoke, puffed up my pillows, grabbed my Chandler paperback with the essay in the front, and read. And now comes my rebuke.
It’s a really excellent essay. It’s bitingly sardonic about a lot of things, not just classic mysteries. It’s just long enough and doesn’t belabor the point. On many counts, it makes its case extremely well. And best of all, it’s very funny. And – get this – it all boils down to one man’s opinion. That man happens to have had a remarkable platform for his feelings, given that he is considered one of the top hard-boiled mystery authors of all time. Like his compatriot, Dashiell Hammett, Chandler didn’t produce a huge output of novels (only seven; Hammett wrote five), but they both published a multitude of short stories.
And they were both troubled men. Hammett was a farmer’s son, who left school at 13 and became a Pinkerton detective. He served in World War I and afterwards returned to Pinkerton’s, although his involvement through the agency in union strike-breaking efforts disillusioned him. Throughout his adult life, he was plagued by ill health, most notably tuberculosis, which isolated him from his family. He drank excessively. His attempts at a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter were pretty much self-sabotaged by his alcoholism. His writing dried up, and he lived many more years producing nothing. But what he created was pure gold.
Chandler came from more upscale stock, but his father abandoned the family when he was a kid. His mother moved him to England where he received a fine education. He was a civil servant (unhappily) and then an oil company executive (successfully, until the Great Depression, when he was fired) and turned to writing and the ripe old age of forty-four. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I, but the war ended before he saw any action. He married the love of his life, Cissy, a divorced woman eighteen years his senior – and then proceeded to cheat on her with other women throughout their 30-year marriage. He was plagued by depression. And he drank. Excessively. His attempts at a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter were pretty much self-sabotaged by his alcoholism. He is considered a brilliant stylist and a writer of great dialogue. However, you’ll have to ask someone else if his creations were gold – because I’ve never read the guy.
Until this essay.
The first sentence, “Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic,” forms the crux of Chandler’s argument. As the essay’s title implies, murder is a simple, brutal act, performed by common people like you and me, not by lords of the manor or the members of a country weekend party. Chandler insists that the dramatis personae populating a novel by Christie or Sayers could never exist; instead, he paints a cynical picture of a dark, nasty world where everyone is susceptible to corruption and violence,
“ . . . A world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rules cities, in which hotels and apartments houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the finger man for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of Yorktown may have condoned murder as an instrument of money– making, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up man may have friends with long guns, where the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.”
This is dark stuff, and inherently believable, especially in our current troubled times . . . although I can’t help noticing that everything Chandler describes is the fodder for the plots to about 75% of the films noir that we watch and enjoy. I wonder how morose Chandler was actually feeling. This essay was written in 1944. Chandler was 56. He had either started or was in the middle of a great experience co-writing the screenplay for Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. He had three more novels in him, including arguably two of his best: The Little Sister (1949) and The Long Goodbye (1953). As time went on, Chandler’s battles with internal demons would worsen. Ten years after writing the essay, his wife would die, leaving him a lonely, clinically depressed drunk for five years until he too would pass away, from pneumonia brought on by his alcoholism.
Until his dying day, Chandler posited that men like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and himself were true novelists because they were realists who wrote mainstream novels that happened to involve crime. Their criminals were corrupt bureaucrats and street lowlifes, who shot people in the back on the “mean streets” of the city, not in the conservatory with the candlestick. And their detectives were not a walking pile of tics and eccentricities, whose methods would be laughed off by any true policeman. Men like Philip Marlowe were true heroes:
“ . . . a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”
Now I’m a big fan of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade (at least as played by Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell), but I don’t see why there isn’t space enough for these guys and Hercule Poirot. I understand that Chandler doesn’t like the idea of a dandy in shiny patent leather shoes foregoing fisticuffs for his “little grey cells,” but surely this is a matter of taste.
At the same time, there’s no denying that Chandler makes a good case for the artificiality of classic British-style detective fiction not always adhering to true legal or police procedure. He does this largely by tearing down the investigation found in an early example of this genre, A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922.) I haven’t read that book, but Chandler offers multiple examples of where Milne falls down on the job of having his police characters act rationally. The summative argument is one we admittedly can apply to many lesser works in the genre – the situation where an author, through his investigator, rams a theory down the readers’ throats as fact, despite the rational possibility that multiple interpretations of appearance are possible. It’s a good point.
Chandler confesses he has a problem with the outrè scenarios that plague British detective fiction. He cites several examples, including Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, as so unreal in its plotting and, especially, its solution that “only a halfwit could guess it.” I’m not going to strike back at the man, even if The Big Sleep is so convoluted (and includes rich people in a mansion, sir, one of whom is a secret criminal) that Chandler himself couldn’t quite grasp the solution when asked a question during the making of the film adaptation. I acknowledge the fanciful aspect of GAD and again insist that it’s all a matter of taste.
Chandler neglects to place the GAD period – roughly between the wars – within a social context, which has much to do with its fantastical aspect. Classic mystery writers offered an escape to readers from the horrors of their surrounding world by turning death into a rational event. Over a million British military personnel died in the two world wars, as did over 70,000 civilians. There’s only so far patriotism and politics can go to explain away the loss. And what is one going to do during a blitz, as the bombs rain without warning upon our heads?
Putting it into a current and more personal context, watching MSNBC during these trying political times only gets me angrier and more worried; reading Francis Beeding’s Murdered: One by One comforts me. (Review coming soon!)
Chandler wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist, and in retrospect, I think he got what he wanted. In 2010, Time selected 100 All Time Novels, picked from all of literature written since 1923, the year Time itself began. The Big Sleep, Chandler’s first novel, is on that list, right beside The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, 1984, On the Road and The Great Gatsby. The only other mystery to appear on the list is Hammett’s Red Harvest.
Then, in 2014, the Guardian named its 100 Best Novels of All Time. Once again, The Big Sleepmade the list. Hammett is also represented, this time by The Maltese Falcon; only one more mystery of sorts appears here: John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. So ultimately Chandler got the respect he wanted. I wonder if he got the sales, though. I honestly don’t know. The Big Sleepappeared in 1939, the same year as Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The latter book, which didn’t make either of the above lists, is the best-selling mystery novel of all time.
With all due respect to Scott, I didn’t find much criticism of Christie here (can we call it “Christie-cism”??), except in the fact that she falls into the disparaged category. But yes, it’s true: Chandler didn’t like those kinds of books. He deemed them formulaic and unreal, and he cited none other as Dorothy L. Sayers, one of their own, who admittedly had grown concerned that the mysteries she was writing weren’t important enough to be deemed “literature.”
“It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first grade literature. If it started out to be about real people, they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot when they did unreal things, aC’s to be real themselves they became puppets and cardboard lovers an papier-mâché villains and detectives are exquisite and impossible gentility.”
I also found some unkind words for publishers and book critics, guilty of “intellectual pretentiousness,” who find it difficult to impossible to promote good crime fiction:
“The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news . . .
“The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway.”
Given the difficulty of writing a mystery, Chandler wonders why he even bothers, if the fans don’t have the education or discernment to tell good from bad:
“. . . the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Second-rate items outlast most of the high-velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all.”
Chandler reserves his greatest rage for the fans themselves, the “old ladies (who) jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some items of the same vintage with such a title as The Triple Petunia Murder Case or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue.” He despairs of what will happen to people of “discernment”:
“They do not like it’s at all that “really important books” get the frosty mitt at the reprint counter while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the newsstands of the country, and is obviously not fair just to say goodbye.”
Nowadays, I find myself in a similar position to Chandler: I hie me hence to my local bookstore, the mega-Barnes and Noble that has, along with on-line sales, destroyed the independent bookstores that used to abound in my area. In the large mystery section, I find Christie and Chandler and Hammett. I also find over two hundred titles of cozy mysteries like Willow, Weep for Mimi: A Horticulture Club Mystery and Knit One, Purloin Two. But where are the classic mystery titles? Not even the ones that are being revived today are present. Why won’t the bookstores deal with the small publishers? The answer is because it’s not profitable to them. I asked somebody at Books Inc., and he explained that the publishers want too much payback per copy sold. That’s all very well, but it means we readers must take our business on-line, which ultimately isn’t a good thing for Mr. Barnes or Mr. Noble, is it?
Um . . . . . . . . . really?
Clearly, whatever I’m writing here isn’t intended to nip Mr. Chandler’s opinion in the bud. I acknowledge those moments when his opinion verges on truth – there are formulas in these books, and not all formulas are created or applied equally. We’ve all just been talking about The Rules of classic mysteries. I think we have all embraced their cheekiness and the sense that they serve as guidelines . . . and we acknowledge that some of the most seminal works we have enjoyed in the genre rejoice in rule-breaking. If they didn’t, then classic mysteries would indeed be “an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications.”
So I tried, Byrnside, but I couldn’t tame the beast. Now leave me alone so I can finish Murdered: One by One. . .
28 thoughts on “FOR THIRTEEN PAGES, THE GAUNTLET IS THROWN”
I have met a woman with a masters degree who did not know who FDR was. But at least she had read Chandler!
I am less conflicted than you. Most books on the shelves are shit. They are read by people who don’t know better. I know better, and I try to sidestep the shit. Does that make me elitist? Yes it does. Shocking isn’t it? But remember: if you sneer at Trump as an ignoramus you are an elitist too.
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Then I am the biggest freaking elitist you ever met . . .
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Plenty of non-elitists sneer at Trump. You don’t need high intellectual standards to believe in Trump’s ignorance. He displays it all the time.
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“Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”
Nope. Chandler loses me right out of the gate. Fair enough, it’s true that some of the most obvious exceptions (Borges*, Kafka, the Oulipo writers) were unknown or little known at the time Chandler wrote this. But fiction at its base aims to entertain. When it’s ambitious it intends an engagement with the real world, but this needn’t at all mean realism the way Chandler does. And in fact writers who do strain at realism, in and out of the mystery genre, frequently wind up with wooden results, cardboard cutout characters. Although again, to be fair, Chandler’s own work doesn’t fall too much victim to that, but what works for him won’t work for everyone.
*Whose first English translation appeared in EQMM, of course.
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He loses not only you right of the gate. That key premise of the essay is so blatantly false that it is surprising that the essay is not met with more derision and ridicule.
PS I loved the Red House Mystery
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First of all – And Then There Were Nuns – COL (cackle out loud). Also, an author named Rae D Magdon published a novel called Death Wears Yellow Garters in 2016. I pray it’s in reference to Chandler’s essay.
I was introduced to Chandler through the cinema. I actually think Altman’s funky The Long Goodbye was my first taste(!), but eventually, I caught The Big Sleep and adored it. It strikes me now that 1940s America hard boiled both the British genteel murder mystery and the art of German expressionism. Perhaps cynicism was our national perversion back then. I’ve read three other Chandlers, and I had no problem with him before reading The Simple Art of Murder. Chandler would have made a good critic. As you say, the essay is quite funny, and the points are well presented. I suppose I should have been able to read it and move on without any negative feelings.
But…I read it at the wrong time. My interest in his opinion is intensely personal. A lot of that has to do with The Red House Mystery. I’d lived in Europe for 10 years, and when I returned to the States, I felt aimless, like I didn’t have a home. To pass the time, I read. I don’t think I had read anything in my 30s. Milne’s book was so delightfully quaint and charming, so enjoyable. Admittedly, these are qualities Chandler would never have seen because he was so close to its publication.
The Red House Mystery led me to the rabbit hole of locked rooms and GAD and all that jazz. It was the first spark of interest. After reading Death of Jezebel (the most sublimely ridiculous of all impossible crime novels), I knew I had to write one. I gave myself two months to read as much as I could. The day before outlining was scheduled to begin, I read Chandler’s essay. Big mistake.
I’m a pessimistic person, Brad. This Simple Art of Murder depressed me to no end. The worst part was, he was right. Everything Chandler said was true. Laying in bed that night, the thought of writing was the furthest thing from my mind.
The next morning, a miracle happened. I felt great. “Let’s just have some fun. To hell with Raymond Chandler.” I actually had to foster some malice against him to move forward. It’s ridiculous of course, but it worked. Whatever works, right? That’s why his essay fascinates (and troubles) me still. It’s almost important for me to argue against it.
Anyway, I’m glad you wrote some thoughts on it. It makes for good discussion. I’ve commented before about how detective stories are a kind of interaction between the author and the reader more than the reader and the characters. I think that’s a big reason why realism doesn’t apply to these kinds of books. It’s also why I’m fascinated with omniscient narration in detective stories. It’s not as hokey as in other genres because the author is talking to the reader for the whole book. Why not speak directly?
Anyway, I’ll stop bloviating. I hope you feel better soon.
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So really, we can credit your rage against Chandler for Goodnight, Irene? Then I say: more power to the guy!!
Of course I disagree with Chandler’s taste in crime fiction, but I don’t disagree that a lot of people read bad books and make their authors rich. I remember when The Da Vinci Code came out. EVERYBODY was reading it except for me. So finally I went out and bought the paperback (yes, I waited that late.) I would walk down the street carrying the book and people in cars would pass by, honk, and yell, “Great book!” One night, I carried it to a restaurant and sat down to eat my dinner. There was a man sitting next to me, also alone, and we got to talking. He asked me how I liked the book. I told him I liked the idea of the book’s premise, and he pointed me to some books I should check out if I wanted to really learn something about the Illuminati. But the novel itself was dreck to me. Personal taste!
People knock Christie all the time, and it’s like a little slap to me. We just have to let these things go, right?
Looking forward to The Opening Night Murders!
Thanks, Brad, for a thoughtful and reasoned critique. I’ve always felt, as you do, that there’s no reason that the classic/GA crime fiction style can’t co-exist with the more hardboiled realism to which Chandler refers. The two sub-genres look at different aspects of society, and take different perspectives on them. I don’t see a problem with that – never have. I do understand Chandler’s point about real people, and the way they commit murders (both in real life and in fiction). But, to me, that’s not a reason not to read (and study, and love) the GA greats.
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I absolutely agree on all points, Margot! The literary world is big enough to accommodate a myriad of tastes and styles. No point in denigrating one or another; just read what you want to read.
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Thanks for this article. I always enjoy seeing a classic disparagement, even of something I love, thoughtfully dealt with, as you did.
One of the best refutations I’ve read of Chandler’s essay appears in Robert Barnard’s book about Christie. He disputes Chandler’s basic point that realism is the goal of all fiction (and thereby in essence says that Sayers was mistaken, though more in theory than practice I’d say): he classes mysteries as “entertainments” that do not aspire to the heights of great literature, but are among the many ways we can enjoy ourselves, without guilt, in another part of the world of writing. (I don’t have the book at hand, but at another point in his book he says something like, If you don’t enjoy classic mysteries, fine — but then try SF, or Westerns, or fantasy, or romances, or something else; it’s a shame to lose touch with the fun one can have reading within a well-defined genre.) He also points out that the hard-boiled school isn’t ultimately more realistic, they’re just building their entertainments on a different set of premises.
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I own Barnard’s book – have for many years – and every once in a while I take it down and read it again. I think he puts it brilliantly! And all of us who love genre fiction, as well as Dickens and Austen and Fitzgerald and the like, know exactly whereof he speaks!
How does Chandler reconcile his dismal view of humanity with his concept of an inherently and instinctively honorable hero? Where would the hero”s sense of honor come from, a mutant gene or something? I get the feeling there’s a tiny bit of romanticism, or at least idealism, mixed in with Chandler’s realism. He must have needed a hero to counteract the meanness of life, or else why bother creating one?
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I agree, Marty! He shared that with Hammett, although I think Hammett’s heroes were more interesting and less “ideal” – Sam Spade is described as “satanic”, Nick Charles is a lush, and the Continental Op is depressed and brutally violent when he needs to be, yet all of them are heroes. And, as far as I can tell, their books ended with good triumphant; contrast that with a REAL cynic, like Patricia Highsmith or James M. Cain or Nathaniel West, where most of the time good shrivels up . . .
It seems counter-intuitive to say that the reason for making something up is purely to be realistic. Writers of fiction all manipulate what goes on in their stories. In real life, guys like Marlowe and Spade might not have lasted a week on the mean streets. Their creators made up realistic worlds for them, but arranged that they didn’t meet realistic fates.
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Maybe I missed it, but no-one seems to have connected this to the Van Dine or Knox rules, and yet I think there is a clear and simple connection: both sides are limning the boundaries and goals of a kind of genre that uses the novel as a vessel. Van Dine and Knox want to play an intellectual game. In their era the game was embodied in the form of a novel (today they might choose an app). But just because they are *using* the novel to hold their game doesn’t mean they think the success of the enterprise is fairly judged by the usual standards of how a novel is judged. Thus we get pronouncements about how little character matters *in the detective game-novel*. Or that a romance or even a character arc, are unwanted in this new form. “Yes, l know we are co opting the form of the novel, but we aren’t interested in novels but rather in puzzles, so we only want those aspects of the novel — such as suspense — which contribute to our puzzle. The others we dispense with.”
Chandler doesn’t much like the result, and thinks they have sacrificed too many of the novel’s virtues. He wants to exploit the mystery to create new kinds of plots in the context of a kind of novel *judged as a novel*.
Well, he wasn’t alone – and that’s the way the genre has evolved in the Western world, for the most part. However, in Asia, the classic mystery is still a hit – and your mention of “apps” suggests to me that young people embrace the game-like atmosphere of GAD. There seem to be many actual video games they can play where you solve mysteries – none of which have made their way to America 😦 – and young people are writing and publishing shin honkaku because the citizens love the game-play aspects of it.
Ronald Knox’s ten rules, Van Dine’s twenty rules, Raymond Chandler’s ten rules ! Now who the hell are these people to lay down rules ? There is only one ultimate test: whether the reader enjoyed the story or not !
I have a question, which I guess is no more off-topic than it would be in any other article here, and it’s definitely relevant to the overall area of discussion. And I have to ask it somewhere:
Several years back, I discovered an online discussion forum, with subforums and individual discussion threads for authors and books etc., devoted to GAD. (It’s where I first heard of Christianna Brand, I blush to say, though better late than never.) I lost myself happily in reading through it for a month or so, and then got preoccupied with work-type stuff, as so often happens. When I thought to look for it again last fall, I couldn’t find it again. Do any of you know what I’m talking about? Has it vanished?
Could that be the fabled Yahoo forum I’ve heard mentioned in Facebook? It predates the FB GAD page. A lot of people have been on both. Just a guess!
I hope someone else can verify that (or not) — I can’t! My memory is that it didn’t look like my idea of a Yahoo group (predominantly black backgrounds, I thought), but what do I know? But if that group was a large one devoted to GAD, it may be the one; surely there weren’t two with such identical aims.
Yes, it is likely to be the Yahoo forum on GAD. It is still existent though the number of messages have considerably declined.
It’s the old Jdcarr.com forum. Closed, apparently.
“It’s the old Jdcarr.com forum. Closed, apparently.” Ah, that sounds like the one! It’s distressing to think that something so active and so stuffed with discussion and insights can just vanish. But of course I know from sad experience elsewhere that it can.
That must be it, as one I located it I discovered that I was already a member. The visual interface is not at all what I recall, though. (It used to be possible to see an index of subforums, then see an index of topics within that, each with its own comments. The Yahoo group displays simply as a lists of posts, most recent first.) It also has a link to a WordPress “forum” which turns out to be a multi-author blog, was most recently updated in 2011, and is probably familiar to everyone here.
(Somehow, despite my efforts to reply at the proper points, my responses appear out of chronological order. My March 12 comment, presumably just above this one though maybe not, is the earlier one, with “that” referring to Santosh Iyer’s information. It’s now superseded by the March 15 one above it, which I did enter in the bottommost Reply box on the page, but never mind….)
Oh, dear, Rinaldo! Didn’t you take the class on how to respond in order on WordPress? It’s a ten-week course . . . and you have to take notes. And buy the manual. It’s a thick manual.
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