I held a little party recently and in attendance was a Raymond Chandler fan other than me – an automatic win, I’d say. We got talking about The Simple Art of Murder, and W.H. Auden’s Guilty Vicarage, with a little detour through GK Chesterton’s A Defence of Detective Stories. It’d been a little while since I’d read any of them, but SOAM is pretty well engraved in my memory and the gist of the other two is pretty straightforward when you get beyond the prose stylings. It’s Chesterton in particular who was in my mind while reading Red Means Run:
The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.
It’s been persuasively argued subsequently that in fact detective novels offer a much better perspective on the lives of ordinary people than any other literary form because of their obsession with the mundane details by which murders are committed and obfuscated and subsequently uncovered. Chesterton had in mind something a little grander and more spectacular, focusing as he did on the glittering city of London. Yet, Red Means Run responds exactly to this critical idea, it is a kind of paean, or perhaps elegy, to a vanishing semi-rural way of life in upstate New York. At least in the eyes of a complete outsider like myself, it fully romanticises the kind of life where people buy horses, bail hay, and so on. In doing so, it also connects closely with Chesterton’s idea that “in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elf land”, in other words, the journeying of the detective mirrors the questing of a knight. Reading the passages of Red Means Run where the protagonist traverses the landscape literally brought to mind the travelling Hobbits in Fellowship of the Ring.
We must however turn back to Chandler when thinking about Virgil Cain, the story’s protagonist. Cain is a direct descendant of the hard-boiled pulp heroes of old: competent, stoic, ruggedly individual, imperturbable, and with a rough exterior that masks basically good intentions. I’m no Joseph Campbell fan, but archetypal characters like Cain really do seem to be cut from the same mould. Cain is so embedded within this platonic ideal of masculinity that he becomes a cipher rather than a character, so that we really see the other characters in the story through the prism of his values and actions. In the light of his old fashioned nature, all of the other male characters are found to be inferior and inconsequential. Unusually then, this means that all of the women in the novel appear more fully realised and more dynamic than any of the men. With one slight exception, they are all attractive as characters and have both strengths and weaknesses. Smith’s hyper-masculine hero has suppressed explorations of masculinity and left space for explorations, albeit circumscribed by genre requirements, of femininity. Chandler was never able to do this with his own writing, but it’s an interesting and logical end-point for the kind of character he advocated.
As a mystery, Red Means Run is fairly rudimentary. The point of this novel is to showcase the main character’s virility rather than to create an intricate web of clues and misdirections. Taken altogether, this is something of a compromised genre piece. It’s not got the toughness to compete with a Lee Child outing, it’s not got the sophistication to compete with anything from the Golden Age, it’s not literary enough to read it without regard to its genre elements, and its not quite enamoured enough of its horsey theme to draw in the James Herriot or Dick Francis crowds. I read it quickly and easily, but that just means it wasn’t bad – and that’s probably the fairest summary.