A Not So Simple Art

The Simple Art of Murder is both an essay and a collection of short stories by novelist Raymond Chandler.  As I begin to delve into my detective reading project it is the former, Chandler’s criticism of the detective genre and discussion of the nature of art in general, that is most pertinent to my own needs.  Chandler begins his essay by exclaiming that “Fiction of any form has always intended to be realistic.”  He delves rather quickly into the elements of his own genre, detective fiction, that seem to subvert fiction’s drive towards realism.  He says of detective fiction that it “….has learned nothing and forgotten nothing” and looks towards the classic authors of the British style with a harsh critical eye.  He dissects A. A. Milne’s The Red House of Mystery, lambastes the ridiculous nature of Murder on the Orient Express and, almost as an aside, comments that Sherlock Holmes is less a person and more of an idea and an attitude.  He succinctly sums up his opinion of British authors with this gem of a quote: “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”

Chandler goes on to challenge a statement by Dorothy Sayers to the effect that detective fiction can “never attain the loftiest level of literary achievement.”   Sayers’ statement is based on that time honored genre critic trump card: escapism.  I think it true today that all “genre fiction” still suffers from that supposed detriment when viewed by the critical eye of the “literary establishment.”  Perhaps less so then in the past but I think the stigma is sill there.  Chandler contests the notion of escapism stating that:

Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects only a dull mind. All men who read escape from something else into what lies beyond the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued but its release has become a functional necessity.

The most fascinating aspect of that sentiment, and those that follow, is that they are almost the exact same as those expressed by J. R. R. Tolkien, eleven years earlier in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.”   Both Chandler and Tolkien are consistent in their belief that good fiction, or fantasy, is on some level realistic and provides a valuable means for man to escape the harsh realities of man’s existence and, as Tolkien expounded upon, refresh himself to deal with said reality.  I think the error is supposition that most critics mistake is that escapism, by its definition, somehow also means avoidance.  I would argue, and I like to think that Tolkien and Chandler would agree, that good fiction (of any genre) offers us both a means to take a break from our own lives while at the same time providing the opportunity to confront reality on our own times; an opportunity that life doesn’t always offer us.

When speaking of the importance of realism in fiction Chandler mentions the importance of Dashiell Hammett.   While he doesn’t out Hammett as a master, merely an individual singled out amongst a small group working in a similar mode, he does laud Hammett’s ability to capture the “American language” as well as elucidate important values, such as loyalty to one’s friends, without adhering to “tried and true” formula. Of Hammett’s use of language Chandler says the following:

In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

Of course for all his innovation Hammett was just a small fish in a rather large sea and despite everything he did to advance the quality and substance of the detective story it was never enough for Chandler’s satisfaction.  It is from here that Chandler sets forth a rather explicit definition not of the detective story itself put of the hero who must be the center of our attention.  It is fairly specific and, I’m of the opinion at least, that it has been by and large the text-book definition of “hard-boiled detective” since Chandler set it down in print.  I’m going to reproduce the rather length section here:

But down these mean streets must go a man 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. He must be 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….I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would never spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing he is that in all things.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as a man of his age talks—that is, with rude with, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham. And a contempt for pettiness.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure….If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.

It is this lengthy bit of text that I’ll be keeping in mind as I look at detective fiction.  Has this notion changed?  How many heroes of our detective novels and shows today still follow this template that Chandler stamped out here and with his own creation Philip Marlowe?  I don’t know if I’ll find the answers or not, or even if there are any answers to be found, but at the very least I hope to have fun with the process.  If you’ve never read The Simple Art of Murder I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re even a small fan of detective fiction in print or other media.  Stick around and I’ll have my first look at a detective, Chandler’s own Phillip Marlowe, up towards the end of the week.

2 thoughts on “A Not So Simple Art

  1. I think one of the interesting things in this genre is the way the hero has changed.

    If you look at Hammett’s Continental Op, or some of Chandler’s short stories (the ones in the “Killer in the Rain” collection, for instance), we know very little about them – they don’t have to be “interesting” in the way that a modern protagonist does, with hangups, tics and personal problems. I think the Continental Op is the archetype of the hero who almost isn’t there, in this regard – he drives the plot, but we don’t know as much about him as we do about his antagonists. If you don’t have it on your list, I hope you’ll consider reading “Red Harvest”, one of my favourite Hammett stories, and one of my favourite hardboiled tales full stop.

    James M. Cain had some interesting things to say about the place of the protagonist/antagonist in his stories too – his idea of them being driven towards an end that everyone can see but them, or that they can see but not avoid runs powerfully through most noir.

    Looking forward to the rest of your series.

  2. Pingback: Vacation Imminent « King of the Nerds!!!

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