The Simple Art of Murder

Without a doubt, the single most cited article that I’ve come across is The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler. Virtually every scholarly article on the American school of detective writing references this article. This therefore appears to be the lynch-pin of scholarship on the Hard Boiled detective, without which everything gets fragmented. In it, Chandler makes a large number of relatively bold claims, and while it is not itself Scholarly ™ in the sense of a peer-reviewed journals, it is clear that Chandler writes from a position of knowledge, as well as acknowledged skill in the field he critiques.

In some ways, my thesis too is a response to Chandler’s essay, and it would perhaps take an even longer work to fully articulate a response to it. I will examine a number of his claims in subsequent posts. At the highest level of summary abstraction, the essay is about the aspiration for detective fiction to transcend the formulaic and become an art form on an even footing with literature generally.

It is an argument that I feel a lot of sympathy towards, and one which has been centrally relevant to the production of “entertainment” as opposed to “art” since we invented either. This argument feels particularly pertinent when discussing the modern Hollywood Blockbuster ™, most of which are driven fairly much entirely by formulaic considerations (boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-adversity, boy-kicks-arse, boy-explodes-everything). Chandler doesn’t accept that Detective Fiction should settle and contort into its formula at the loss of artistic merit, and I think the analogy today is rejecting stifling genre conventions in favour of more thoroughly creative films.

Interestingly, Chandler’s only real stab at how this synthesis of formula and art should be done is to speculate on realism. Great art has never required realism (think about Aeschylus!) but I think what he means is that the art must resonate with the audience. Realism here is, I speculate, shorthand for real-feeling. If a work feels too artificial, or too improbable, it can dampen the emotional response. On some level then, Chandler is also asking authors and implicitly their audiences, to engage with murder mysteries in an emotional as well as intellectual way. I don’t suppose he intends us to weep for every victim and lament the injustice which was rife in his novels; something lesser, but still significant.

Spotting the difference between a facile shell and a deep artistic work can be difficult, and especially when formula fiction is involved. For example, I’ve always thought Dead Reckoning to be a cheap and obvious pastiche of The Big Sleep. Its rating of 7.1 on IMDB and 67% Fresh on RottenTomatoes would tend to imply that others have viewed it more generously, though far below The Big Sleep‘s 8.2 & 96%Fresh. Choose your own least favourite detective and you’ll find his aficionados lurking just out of site. I’ve even met people who like Miss Marple.

This call for artistic aspirations feels timely and relevant and provoking in critical literature stretching back 61 years. I wonder sometimes what Chandler would make of the adoption of the detective as virtually the central staple of fictional television. I wonder whether watching Castle is any different to picking up an edition of Black Mask. Is it Art(tm)? Does it aspire to be?

By word count, the largest section of the essay is devoted to the mechanics of how murders are investigated in the classical school, and he heaps particular scorn on two novels I haven’t read: “Trent’s Last Case” and “The Red House”. In essence, he looks at each step of the investigation as it unfolds and points out the way in which it is deficient and the kind of sleight-of-hand which is needed to ensure that the audience doesn’t rebel.

He picks on this particular weakness mostly to reinforce his own perception of “realism”. He means to show that because the story mechanics of the mysteries rely on these unlikely situations and unlikely approaches to investigation, that they are an inferior creative product. These sections feel in some ways like Chandler is picking the low-hanging fruit though because most fiction relies on a certain unlikely congruence of circumstances to work at all. Chandler’s own writing is often underpinned by a casual acceptance of deeply tangled situations, so that while the crime itself may be simple and simply investigated, the situation leading to the crime can sometimes defy belief.

The critical favourite of Chandler’s novels appears to be a toss-up between “Farewell, My Lovely” and “The Long Goodbye”. Either of these would show that under the “realism” the basic structure of cause-and-effect needs a rather long chain of what-if statements to be true. For FML, what if a woman ratted out her boyfriend to be rid of him, what if she then married a millionaire, what if she was then entangled in an unrelated blackmail plot, what if the execution of that plot went wrong, what if her ex was released from prison at just that moment, what if Marlowe took a sudden and inexplicable liking to the ex just as the ex commits a completely unrelated rage-based murder, what if she attempts to seduce Marlowe… and so on. It’s a house of cards, and far more like a soap-opera than a tragedy. Pull out almost any one of a dozen unlikely-sounding what-ifs and suddenly the plot as it unfolds is impossible.

His substitute for the meticulous plotted chain of clues is a grab-bag of improbabilities buried deep under a veneer of lucid and vivid prose and coloured with a deep streak of melancholy. His sleight of hand is to relocate the problems out of the investigation and into the crime.

However, he does not explicitly make the claim for himself that he is more realistic. He makes that claim about Dashiell Hammett, in one of the most quoted sentences, he “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley… gave it back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse”. Good advertising for Hammett, given the excoriation delivered to Milne and Christie.

Like most of the rest of Chandler’s work, this sentiment is a heady conflation of literary criticism, class ideology, and aesthetic taste. Most everyone takes this at face value because it feels true about Hammett. His main detective, the Continental Op, is a professional investigator working hand-in-glove with the police instead of competing with them, and the milieu that surrounds him is not the landed classes of the contemporaneous Golden Age writers, but working stiffs and professional criminals. But do they really have a better reason for their killings than someone from Christie? You could think about Brigid, the murderess in “The Maltese Falcon”, who kills Miles Archer *literally* to create a corpse and hence put pressure on her partner in crime that she was planning to frame for the murder.

What we have here then is more of a statement about the fact that the English middle and upper classes, especially those owning property in the country, are less realistic than the American working class. Nothing to do, really, with the mechanics of the murders or how they’re investigated.

Indeed, while Hammett too makes claims about the realism of his writing, the very details which preoccupy Chandler’s attack on the validity of the Golden Age novels are not done more realistically in Hammett or Chandler so much as elided altogether. There are virtually no “clues” as such in either of them, so when Chandler complains about the handling of the autopsy in “The Red House Mystery”, he is being more than a little disingenuous about his own approach to the whole endeavour of crime writing. His real problem is not that the autopsy was done badly, but that it was done at all, because Chandler is not interested in the clue-based mystery form but in a far more abstract psychological investigation through the medium of a mystery.

What we have, therefore, is the concept of realism, and the explosion of some Golden Age story mechanics, being used as placeholders for a far more fundamental difference in the creative purpose of literature featuring corpses. Hammett is used as a weapon against Milne, Sayers, et al, not really being engaged on either his own or Chandler’s real terms of reference or creative agendas.

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8 Responses to The Simple Art of Murder

  1. Realism here is, I speculate, shorthand for real-feeling.

    Tolkien would have called it sub-creation. Only God can create, but men can form secondary worlds through an act of sub-creation. If the secondary world is sufficiently well formed, then it is possible to believe in it. He wasn’t a fan of “willing suspension of disbelief” — if the reader needs to suspend their disbelief, then it means the author has failed to create a believable world.

    • mashugenah says:

      Thanks; interesting as always. 🙂 I’ll need to think a little more about that stance. At a first casual thought, I’m not entirely convinced he’s on the right track.

      I’d tend to see the “willing suspension of disbelief” as one facet of an implicit compact between creator and audience with a number of embedded political/social/artistic conventions. I’d point to a field of art such as the Silent Film where works can usually only be viewed within the context of the practical constraints on dialogue and the concomitant economy of plot. Maybe incorporation of those conventions is part of “sub-creation”, but I think that an audience attuned to those conventions will face a far reduced barrier to enjoyment than one used only to modern cinematic modes. Maybe that’s not precisely “willing suspension of disbelief”, but it is an increasingly conscious engagement of the type implied by that phrase. For example, most of the people I talked to who didn’t like The Artist seemed to be disliking silent film, rather than that film specifically. Those who could accept the conventional structure that it used were unlikely to find much fault with it.

      I suppose what I’m saying is that you, as an audience of whatever medium, must always choose to engage with an artistic work. You can always choose not to. I wouldn’t necessarily rule an artwork a failure that required a high level of willing engagement, which would be one implication of Tolkien’s stance.

      • I had a longer reply, but Livejournal won’t let me post it. :-/

        On Fairy Stories

        If you don’t want to read the whole thing (I haven’t), I found some interesting quotes: search for “Children are capable, of course”, and also for “In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words”.

        Remember also that Tolkien was writing to defend fantasy in an age when it was seen as an amusement for children only, and not something adults should pay any attention to.

      • mashugenah says:

        You could either break the comment up, or post your own post. 🙂

        Fascinating link – I’ve got some time this afternoon and will delve deeper.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I wonder whether watching Castle is any different to picking up an edition of Black Mask

    My good man, surely you jest!

    • mashugenah says:

      Not at all. I don’t seem to have the love for it that most people do – that show runs almost entirely on Nathan Fillion’s charisma. The engine running it, both in terms of the story mechanics and the embodied ideology, is mass-produced mass-entertainment. I don’t hold that against it, or intend that as a derogatory comment – it is a sleekly operated machine which absolutely nails that mass-market paradigm.

      • Anonymous says:

        You misunderstand – I have no love for Castle or 99% of other likewise procedurals. I was expressing my disagreement in the ponderance that Castle came anywhere near Black Mask.

  3. mcbard says:

    As far as comparing Castle to Black Mask, I’d say Chandler would derisively find Castle akin to the lesser works that were, in his mind, largely representative of Black Mask (and all the other detective pulp magazines at the time). On the other hand, he might admiringly find Hammett (and perhaps implicitly himself) in shows such as Breaking Bad. Castle/Black Mask is to typical drivel as Hammett-(Chandler) is to rare quality.

    I also wonder if Chandler is not merely characterizing American working class detective fiction as “realistic/quality” and the English upper class version as “unrealistic/bad” (although he does this to a certain extent), but rather, more importantly and ultimately, criticizing the latter’s long-standing structural focus on plot (“who killed the Colonel?”) over the former’s (of at least the Hammett variety) new embrace of the scene (“let me take you on an evocative journey through the unravelling of this mystery”).

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