Raymond Chandler – The Simple Art of Murder (Laurie Dix)
In researching Noir writers, I came across several references to the author Raymond Chandler. He is hailed as one of the seminal writers of Noir and Hardboiled fiction, and especially relevant when it comes to researching Noir.
One of the most recognisable tropes of Noir is the first person voice over or commentary on events, which was coined by Chandler in his stories involving the character Philip Marlowe, a private detective, who would often speak and think in the first person.
Raymond Chandler, as well as being a renowned Fiction author, also wrote an essay, which is referenced several times by other authors and writers, entitled ‘The Simple Art Of Murder’.
In this essay, Chandler discusses his thoughts on writing detective and hardboiled fiction, and even analyses the writings of his contemporaries and other authors, and identifies the problems with their writings.
Chandler mentions fondly the works of Dashiell Hammett, whom he regards highly and even mimicked in his earlier works, adopting certain elements of Hammett’s writing style in his own.
The reason he believes Hammett to be such a profound author of detective fiction, is that Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton for many years, and thus he is able to draw on his own experiences, adding an element of realism that others could not possibly be privy to.
Reading Chandlers analyses of other detective writers, it is interesting to see that he sees a fine line between what is seen as good, and what is seen as not. Good writing is rarely marketed as such, but lesser writing is marketed well, which means that it sells more and is therefore seen as ‘Good’. He hypothesised that one of the reasons that detective fiction was often maligned, and indeed any good writing, was that there were more people able to write for their own amusement. Although the population of the world was [and is] growing, it would not be unreasonable to assume that with it, there would be more quality work being produced, as more people are able to produce. Chandler stipulated that this was not the case:
“There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.”
Whilst reading the essay, I was put to some ease by one phrase which stuck out to me. Even though ‘Johnny Noir’ would not be a ‘Detective story’, it was comforting to note that;
‘[Yet] the Detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels.’
As was mentioned before about what Chandler believes to be ‘Good writing’, it is interesting to read what he believes to be the difference between good and bad writing, and good and bad detective writing. There is a rather longer excerpt which I believe to of importance.
‘[And] the strange this is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.
There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.”
This final line I enjoy the most.
It is interesting to think that, when comparing things with similar source material or a similar basis, there should be such a fine line between what is good and what is bad. And yet, when it comes down to it, you could have two people write the same story, and yet the nuances of their writing could make the difference between a dull or an average story, and a great one.
Personally, as a writer, as within any walk of life, I would like to be commended for my efforts, but knowing that the difference between me and the next guy could simply be the choice of word we use, or the way we phrase an idea. I want to be good at writing, and I want to be notified of it. But there is no way of knowing without an external observer whether my writing is any good or not, and even then there is a degree of subjectivity involved. I, at least, have the choice of subject, and the option to ignore any potentially mundane ideas. A murder case is very exciting, but when presented with scores of them, how does one know which will be the most exciting? It all comes in the recitation, and the attention to detail.
Indeed, the attention to detail is, in itself, one of the differences between a dull and a good detective story. The reason Chandler so admired Hammett was for his knowledge of his subject, and so it is important to know what you are writing about, and how this will affect your writing. Having learnt one thing in one place may have meant that you were unable to learn something equally as important. Knowledge is power, but to obtain knowledge can be potentially dangerous, not in the sense of excitement, but that one who spends all of his time with his nose buried in a book may miss the world around him. As Chandler so eloquently puts it:
“The master of rare knowledge is living psychologically in the age of the hoop skirt. If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework, you don’t know anything at all about the police. If you know that platinum won’t melt under about 2800ºF by itself, but will melt at the glance of a pair of deep blue eyes when put close to a bar of lead, then you don’t know how men make love in the twentieth century…”
In order to tell a convincing detective story, one must know about being a detective. In learning how to be a detective, one may forget how to be a good writer. It is a complicated balance between writing about what you know, and knowing about what you’re writing. Rather comfortingly, however, Chandler begins his next paragraph with the opening phrase:
“Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should.”
I choose to believe that this extends to all things.
For the next few pages, Chandler analyses one of A.A. Milne’s stories ‘The Red House Mystery’, and although it is hailed as one of the greatest mystery stories of the time, Chandler knows a thing or two about writing detective fiction. Thus, even the best stories have flaws.
I would encourage the reading of this essay, as I cannot possibly analyse what he has written here, but it certainly made me think that, in order to write a good detective story, one much know as much about being a detective as a detective, and know the ins and outs of the system pretty well. This is why Hammett had the edge. Also, when writing your story, it is important to know every single detail of what it is that you are writing, or there may be plot holes left wide open.
One of the most repeated phrases that I have found in researching noir is revealed just under half way through this essay:
“This, the classic detective story, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
It is interesting to think that, whereas certain subtle elements may change, what makes a good detective story still relies on the basic elements. A mystery, suspects, a setting, a detective. These could be anyone and anywhere, with any infinite amount of circumstances surrounding them, but the bare bones remain the same.
This next paragraph may be seen as a bit of an insult disguised as a compliment, but I enjoy it as it describes the difference between the detective stories I enjoyed as a child, and the detective stories that I saw on TV. Whereas I was entertained by both, there are certainly differences between them. One always seemed to be concentrating on details, the minutiae, the little things that have you second guessing. The others spelled it out a bit more obviously, rather making sure that the characters were wearing the right kind of shirt or drinking the right brand of drink. Perhaps the difference between Arthur Conan Doyle or John Grisham, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or Jonathan Creek.
“Personally, I like the English style better. It is not quite so brittle, and the people, as a rule, just wear clothes and drink drinks. There is more of a sense of background, as if Cheesecake Manor really existed all around and not just the part the camera sees; there are more long walks over the Down and the characters don’t all try and behave as if they had just been tested by MGM. The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”
Anyone can write, but not anyone can write well. As mentioned earlier, it is down to the storyteller to tell the story in a way that makes it interesting. As Chandler himself writes:
“‘…there are no dull subject, only dull minds…’
The difference between a man reciting an anecdote and a man telling a story is how they tell it. The story may be the same, but it is down to the delivery, how it is told that makes it interesting. As was mentioned earlier, although it is subjective, some stories are better than others.
Reading this essay has made me think about whether or not I would have it in me to write a convincing detective story, and I am not sure that I could. What matters, however, is not what I write about, but how I write it.
“[other] things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with.”
And, although it is a little out of place, this has to be one of my favourite quotes of the entire essay. As I get older and (hopefully) wiser, I can appreciate this sentiment more and more each day:
“I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or ‘The Diary of the Forgotten Man’. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.’
Towards the end of the essay, Chandler begins to discuss why he believed Hammett to be so skilled at writing detective fiction, and why he admired him so. He claimed that it was because, rather than creating a world for people to live in, where bad things happened in order for them to be solved, instead Hammett wrote about real people. He observed an area of society where certain bad things would happen, and someone would have to sort it out. Rather than conjuring up imaginary people in imaginary scenarios, Hammett chose real people, or real events, or at least people and things that could be real, and transposed them onto the page.
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.’
Although Hammetts writing was also widely criticised, people saying that they were not detective stories at all. These people claimed that they were gruesome tales with an element of mystery thrown in for effect and to give the story drive and purpose.
“These are the flustered old ladies – of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages – who like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair.”
All art is subjective.
I wish I had read this essay before embarking on writing the script for ‘Johnny Noir’, as it would have been incredibly useful and I expect the script would have worked out very differently indeed.
I wish that I could rewrite the story now, however I have already altered it enough, and at this late stage it would be a nuisance for everyone involved if I were to do a complete rewrite.
It is, however, important to note that this essay related to writing detective fiction, and does not directly translate to the story that I have written. It will be taken into account, however, and I am glad that I can now analyse my own work, using the knowledge that I have gained herein.
Chandler, R. (1950) The Simple Art of Murder. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Miffin. (link)