“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. . .