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the simple art of murder

11 june 2013

Raymond Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" is famous, especially for its romantic (in the Arthurian sense) summation of the detective-story hero: "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid" (18). As with most powerful criticism, that sentence is more about the books the critic wanted to write, and it describes Philip Marlowe perfectly.

Yet the "down these mean streets" sentence is part of the peroration of the essay, which is mostly about the technical and aesthetic problems of writing crime fiction, not a prescription for the ideal detective hero. "The Simple Art of Murder" is an excuse to say some Oscar-Wilde-like things about bad writing, but it's also an intriguingly conflicted discussion of the way that literary conventions and realistic aspirations meet on the ground of genre fiction.

From the vantage point of 1944, Chandler reflects on the history and formal features of the detective story. "Good specimens of the art," he says, "are much rarer than good serious novels" (2). And as corollary to that principle, he explains,

Production of detective stories on so large a scale, and by writers whose immediate reward is small and whose meed of critical praise is almost nil, would not be possible at all if the job took talent. … The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn't get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. (3-4)
Chandler is unnecessarily ratty about the talent of mystery writers, but in many respects he describes the publishing world of 2013 as well as that of 1944. More than one writer has told me that his or her idea for an "average novel" on general themes was a drug on the market till reworked as a detective novel. Rewards are still small; critical praise is still hard to come by. But where readership for general novels has to be virtually created anew for each new book, for mysteries, much of the marketing overhead is pre-fabricated. Mystery readers are like any other collectors. Montenegran flower issues will find their philatelists, and novels about Montenegran flower enthusiasts who solve murder cases will find their readers.

And just as perceptively, Chandler goes on to say that the average detective story

is not really very different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a shade grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious. But it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. (4)
Many readers would say that that generic uniformity among detective novels means that they're all bad: the formulaic is the inferior, unless self-consciously exaggerated in postmodern directions. Perhaps that was one of the things Dorothy Sayers meant in a comment that annoys Chandler no end:
"It [the detective story] does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." (11)
Chandler, by contrast, believes that all literature involves escape. Better literature is merely better at providing that escape, by avoiding the "arid formula" of genre, no matter what genre we're talking about (12). But you see that he's contradicting himself: if good detective fiction draws on the same arid formula as bad, how can it succeed as art?

Chandler suggests that triumph lies in characters who "make their own mystery" (13). He's got a point. When we return to detective series, volume after volume, we return to see what mystery Maigret or Martin Beck or Montalbano is fixing to make next. The details are immaterial; you hardly ever hear someone recommend a mystery novel because the murder or the sleuthing was particularly ingenious.

And so Chandler moves on to describe the kind of character he likes best. But the questions he poses in his thorny way continue to nag. Yes, character makes the difference; but why do these characters so need the formula that surrounds them? Could you take the great detectives out of murder mysteries and still have anything left to enjoy? (You can take them a little ways out, but perhaps no further than kidnapping or grand larceny.) When it's pointed out to him that "there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill," Sam Spade replies "they're not much good unless the threat of death is behind them" (Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, Black Lizard 1992: 183). And so it is with detective stories themselves. As heroes of general fiction, detectives would be very average indeed. It's the mean streets themselves that are the crucial element, however little tarnish or fear attaches to the hero.

Chandler, Raymond. The Simple Art of Murder: An essay. 1944. In The Simple Art of Murder. 1950. New York: Vintage [Random House], 1988.