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.