Despite a long silence, The Simple Art of Murder has been loitering at the corner of my eye. As discussed, barely an article goes through the centre of my eye without dragging some of it across too. I’m not usually too bothered by close analysis of the text, but it starts to become unavoiable when so many isolated bits are paraded routinely in front of you. Line-by-line, I’ve gone through trying to identify what Chandler actually talks about, trying to gather together the skeins.
I think that Chandler segues easily between a quite long list of actually quite different things over the course of the essay, returning to a few key strands as they become pertinent to his roving interest. I’ll be talking about each in some detail, but for now, a high-level summary, virtually a table of contents.
The main things which preoccupy Chandler are the interactions between “Art”, realism, and genre fiction (specifically detective fictions). To me, a lot of his commentary on these issues seems to circle around a kind of genre insecurity; he can’t quite convince himself that any level of innovation or treatment will allow a detective novel to operate in the realm where he sees Art. He nevertheless attempts in a lot of ways to articulate a manifesto for just such an attempt.
Possibly acting as a linkage between these concepts is the state of the publishing industry – who gets published, how, why. He doesn’t speculate on who buys the books particularly, though he has a few throw-away aspersions on their value in terms of his Aristic manifesto.
His arguments about Realism are supported by a handful of carefully chosen dissections of story mechanics. He argues that these plots simply wouldn’t be possible in the real world, or, that if carried through to become logically possible, would be extremely tedious. This deep ambivalence makes it difficult to settle on just how he thinks a good detective story works while feeding his genre insecurity; Art ™ seems to be the aspiration which would render considerations of story mechanics secondary, maybe irrelevant.
He offers some specific criticism of other authors’ oeuvres, especially praising Sayers and Hammett, while quite pointedly listing their various faults. Hammett, it would seem, comes closest to acceptability, though even he has almost as many faults listed as virtues.
Finally, Chandler ends his piece with a statement of character – spelling out the ideal detective in broad terms. Unsurprisingly, the only detective I can think of who comes particularly close to matching Chandler’s requirements is Chandler’s own Philip Marlowe; though I suppose Ross Macdonald’s carbon-copy, Lew Archer, isn’t too far off the mark either.
Chandler’s easy style makes the essay a very entertaining read which is pithy and beautiful and hence eminently quotable. It is difficult to read as anything but a critique and virtually attack on the detective novel as it exists outside of the Hardboiled Tradition; and by “as anything but” I mean that aside from broad aims of “realism” and “artistic” I find it difficult to fully assimilate it as the manifesto it implies itself to be. I’m not sure, broadly, that I could write a novel that Chandler would like as a result of this work, but I am sure I could write one he’d hate.