Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Simple Art of Murder: Raymond Chandler

The Simple Art of Murder is prefaced by the seminal Atlantic Monthly essay of the same name (you can read the essay here) and is a collection of short stories.

The essay (first published in 1950) is deemed a classic piece of literary criticism and is as scathing an attack on the fiction of the amateur detective kind, as it is laudatory of the hard-boiled noir fiction, a form that Chandler (and originally, Dashiell Hammett) is seen as a vanguard of. The main thrust of Chandler’s argument can be summed in these two excerpts.

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight deductive or logic and detection novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind.

If you know all you should know about ceramic and Egyptian needlework, you don’t know anything at all about the police. If you know that platinum won’t melt under about 3000o F. by itself, but will melt at the glance of deep blue eyes if you put it near a bar of lead, then you don’t know how men make love in the twentieth century. And if you know enough about the elegant flânerie of the pre-war French Riviera to lay your story in that locale, you don’t know that a couple of capsules of barbital small enough to be swallowed will not only not kill a man—they will not even put him to sleep if he fights against them.

For Chandler, a superman (or superwoman) detective is not real. And therefore, neither is the detective story in which he stars.

It’s interesting to contrast Chandler’s essay with Willard Huntington Wright’s (popularly known as SS Van Dine and incidentally, also an American) 1928 piece “Twenty rules for writing detective stories” . The first sentence of the two essays sums up the difference rather neatly.

The Simple Art of Murder: Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.

Twenty rules for writing detective stories: The detective story is a kind of intellectual game.

And that is the second significant argument of Chandler. Crime fiction is not a game; it is death in all its glory; the color of blood is always red, not blue; and while murder (“it has been going on too long for it to be news”) may be a simple art, detection is not.

Chandler doesn’t spare any of the names that adorn the portals of crime and detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes is “mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” And similar judgments abound, on other bastions of the English detective story like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, among others. No, Chandler claims, he is not against the English style.

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.

Now to the stories in The Simple Art of Murder.

The eight stories are Spanish Blood, I’ll Be Waiting, The King in Yellow, Pearls Are a Nuisance, Pickup on Noon Street, Smart-Aleck Kill, Guns at Cyrano’s, and Nevada Gas. The most unusual story in the collection is Pearls Are a Nuisance – a tongue-in-cheek stab at the amateur detective genre.

All the stories have the typical ingredients of the hard-boiled genre – a hard-drinking sleuth, brutal murder, a racy narrative, loosely defined motives… An interesting thread that comes across all the stories is the presence of a hotel – six of the stories start off at or just outside a hotel, and in all the stories, the hotel is the scene of quite-significant action.

The language is taut, the settings are stark, the characters are flesh-and-blood, the stories are realistic – typical noir stuff.

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