Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bang Bang You’re Dead

Very likely that anyone who considers him or herself a fan of writer Raymond Chandler will be familiar with his seminal essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” The essay was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in December 1944, and was a response to Howard Haycrafts’s 1941 book, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, a work which celebrated the Dorothy Sayers-Agatha Christie model of detective fiction.

The style in this essay is very different from Chandler’s mystery stories and novels, and his criticism of British mystery writing razor sharp. The essay has become almost required reading for Chandler fans, and for anyone else hoping to understand how the genre has evolved.

Chandler argues in his essay that all too often—especially in the examples cited by Haycraft—the mystery writer makes an intellectual game of the story. He goes on to attack the contrived situations, the simplistic and improbable characterizations, and solutions devoid of ambiguity. To Chandler it lacks the messiness of real life, and he insists that fiction in any form must be realistic. In an amusing quip, he lambasts some of the famous names in British detective fiction, saying: ‘Personally, I like the English style better…The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.’ (Chandler lived in England until the age of twenty-four.)

A good part of “The Simple Art of Murder” is given to praise of Dashiel Hammett, explaining that Hammett, with his dialogue, characterizations and hard-boiled settings exemplifies the reality-realism necessary to lift the genre to a higher level.

The essay closes with what could be an almost point by point description of Chandler’s famous character, Philip Marlowe, a man operating in the reality of his (and our) society…

“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But 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. 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. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not 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 the man of his age talks—that is, with a rude wit, 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. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. 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.”

Moving forward a few years and looking at a modern writer who surely displays the Chandler legacy, we can see in Michael Connelly’s L.A. shamus, Harry Bosch, a man easily recognizable as the hero Chandler describes in “The Simple Art of Murder.”

“The Simple Art of Murder” complete essay here.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America