Monday, March 25, 2013

Chandler on the detective story

Since I have a longstanding reading jones for mysteries of every kind, I really enjoyed Raymond Chandler's take on the genre, "The Simple Art of Murder," which he wrote in 1950. Chandler is, of course, one of the great masters of the detective novel - the author of classics, such as The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely.

Being a fan of hard-boiled crime novels, I got particular kick out of Chandler's criticism of Dorothy Sayers and what he saw as the flaws in the mystery "formula."

Taking issue with Sayers' assertion that mysteries could not "attain the highest level of literary achievement, he says:
I think what was really gnawing at her mind was the slow realization that her kind of detective story was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first-grade literature. If it started out to be about real people (and she could write about them–her minor characters show that), they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility. The only kind of writer who could be happy with these properties was the one who did not know what reality was. Dorothy Sayers’ own stories show that she was annoyed by this triteness; the weakest element in them is the part that makes them detective stories, the strongest the part which could be removed without touching the "problem of logic and deduction." Yet she could not or would not give her characters their heads and let them make their own mystery. It took a much simpler and more direct mind than hers to do that.
He also complains about American writers who picked up the English style, skewering both with this classic back-handed compliment:
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 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 Downs and the characters don’t all try to 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.
You can read the entire essay here...

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