Raymond Chandler Riffs on the Simple Art of Murder

Raymond Chandler Riffs on the Simple Art of Murder

posted in: Writers | 6

Every time I read Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), I want to kiss Hollywood’s grungy, star-strewn sidewalks (and swear off bad alliteration).

Never mind that I hated living on Ivar Hill, where Nathanael West penned The Day of the Locust and Joe Gillis abandoned the bedsit next door for Norma Desmond’s mansion on Sunset Blvd.

By the time I moved out, Latino teens smoked pot in the bushes most afternoons and fashionable clubbers vomited on the curb at night.

Chandler would make it all seem lush and gritty and nostalgic.

He was a late bloomer who started writing at age 44 after getting fired from Dabney Oil for drinking. His story isn’t always pretty. Not all good ones are.

Chandler arrived in Los Angeles at age 25 with a plum in his mouth, as my British hubby would say, a product of the English public school system. The writer famed for his gritty American dialogue spoke like a BBC commentator.

But his story will have to wait since I’m only halfway through The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and The Woman He Loved. Instead, here’s Chandler’s take on genre writing, from his 1944 Atlantic Monthly essay “The Simple Art of Murder”:

Genre Fiction Must Feel Realistic

“Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people against a background of rural gentility seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today.”

Even fantasy worlds must follow rules for us to suspend disbelief. Emotion trumps technique.

Genre Fiction Is Easy To Fake And Hard To Write Well

“The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does.”

Why? Because genre tropes don’t change. We know what the writer must deliver:  The detective catches the killer, the guy gets the girl, the symbologist cracks the code. Clichés abound, but rising above them produces a different caliber of fiction.

Art Includes Both Literary Fiction And Genre Fiction

“There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little at that.”

Some of the most intriguing recent literary fiction is also genre fiction: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Ian Rankin includes Chandler’s The Big Sleep in his list of ten greatest literary crime novels.

Art Implies Redemption

“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption…The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth.”

Sometimes our protagonist doesn’t like what she finds, but she must redeem the truth. (A tip of the fedora to the female hardboiled detective. She wasn’t around in Chandler’s day.)

All Literature Is Escapist

“All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity.”

For Elizabethans, Shakespeare represented escape. Ribald, tragic, hilarious, political, but most of all, entertaining. For us, he’s literary canon. We forget why he wrote.

“The Simple Art of Murder” is Chandler’s ode to hardboiled detective fiction. He often drubs his predecessors:

“Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.”

“The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”

But it’s worth a read for his impassioned opinions, if nothing else. I love Chandler, because he always wrote from the belly:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge. (“Red Wind,” 1938)

If you’ve lived on Ivar Hill when the Santa Anas howl, you’d relate.

Agree or disagree with Chandler’s take on genre? Think he’s a great writer, or just full of himself?

6 Responses

  1. Mary Jo Gibson
    | Reply

    You always deliver great subject, content and prose. I love Raymond Chandler, what descriptives, makes me want to find a book of his and just put all my other responsibilties aside. Sounds like a weekend! Looking forward to your next post.

    • Elle B.

      Chandler is a lovely guilty pleasure. It’s so enjoyable for me, living in Los Angeles and knowing many of his locales. There’s an outfit in town called “Esotouric” that does Chandler tours. I think I’m going to book one. Thanks again, Mary Jo!

  2. Daniela Gitlin
    | Reply

    Another awesome post! Thank you! Chandler is one of the greats, if only for his impatience with the obvious! Thanks for the link to The Simple Art of Murder, which I just inhaled on line, but printed out to revisit at leisure. It’s very dense and very wonderful. My favorite author is Donald Westlake. Followed by P.G. Wodehouse. Having read Chandler’s essay, I understand a little better why. It’s also given me a bit of a sweet spot to stand on in the quicksand of dissatisfaction that is my own writing. Smiles, Daniela

    • Elle B.

      I’ve not read Westlake, Daniela, but I adore Wodehouse. I’ve stopped by you blog, and have no idea when you find time to write!

  3. David Stevens
    | Reply

    Hi Elle B,
    I remember some of the movies however haven’t read any books. Seems like I am missing out on something? Thank you for sharing this story.
    be good to yourself

    • Elle B.

      Maybe, maybe not. Some people hate Chandler. Others worship him. I think he’s good old-fashioned entertainment. He wrote very tongue-in-cheek. Maybe rent “The Big Sleep” with Bogart and Bacall, then read the book. It’s one of my favorites. Thanks for stopping by!

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