Raymond Chandler’s essay The Simple Art of Murder is pretty much required reading for any Chandler fan and any aspiring crime writer. It is one of those essays that has earned a place in literary history for its title as much as its thesis. Appearing in The Atlantic Monthly in December 1944, it’s a serious examination of the genre and it reveals plenty about Ray and about how he approached writing so to my mind it is interesting in both a biographical sense and a literary one. It’s worth pointing out though that it was written after he produced The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window and The Lady in the Lake and so, to a certain extent Ray was following the advice of Sherlock Holmes, suiting his theory to facts rather than his facts to theories.
There are three elements that stand out to me. Firstly, the opening section. Reading it now – you can so here – the introductory passages are exceptionally choleric in their attack on the literary institutions that dismissed crime fiction. Here is an excerpt:
There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.
And this sort of stuff makes me want to connect some biographical dots. This essay was written in early to mid 1944. The year before Ray had worked on Double Indemnity and there is little doubt that during this point he was drinking heavily (Billy Wilder, his writing partner on the movie, certainly thought so) and so I wonder if there is parallel or a resemblance in the essay with Ray’s outburst a Billy Wilder (he complained bitterly, in a note)? Was this essay then – probably written late at night, after Cissy had retired – an example of Ray writing in his cups? Maybe this is a stretch to far, maybe it isn’t. Ray’s anger in the early part could be simple rhetoric but it seems to be a degree beyond that. It is just too bitter.
Of course the essay has more to tell us than Ray’s state of mind and this is where it gets interesting in a literary sense. Ray works very hard to position Dashiell Hammett and himself in the American literary tradition. In passages like this, he is claiming hardboiled fiction for America:
How original a writer Hammett really was, it isn’t easy to decide now, even if it mattered. He was one of a group, the only one who achieved critical recognition, but not the only one who wrote or tried to write realistic mystery fiction. All literary movements are like this; some one individual is picked out to represent the whole movement; he is usually the culmination of the movement. Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway. Yet for all I know, Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett, as well as from writers like Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and himself. A rather revolutionary debunking of both the language and material of fiction had been going on for some time. It probably started in poetry; almost everything does. You can take it clear back to Walt Whitman, if you like.
It’s pretty fierce stuff especially when it is combined with the dismissal of the English tradition as weak, useless and unliterary. American crime literature, when it is of the best, hardboiled sort, is about language: it is, in other words, truly literary:
He [Hammett] was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.
This is exactly what Modernists like Ezra Pound were calling for when they shouted Make It New and Hammett, according to Raymond Chandler, had answered that call and made something truly new using the American language.
Lastly though, this essay will be remembered for it’s brief flickering illumination of Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe in it’s closing paragraphs. Though he does not make it explicit that Marlowe is his subject, it is pretty clear that he is talking about his central character:
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor…
Reading the entire passage you can’t help but pick up on the reiteration of the word honest (or, in it’s other form, dishonest): it’s like the bass drum beat to the conclusion. Philip Marlowe though, isn’t always honest: he is more the happy to lie as long as that lie is in someway serving a higher truth, as long as that lie somehow serves Marlowe’s moral code. Read the end to The High Window for a good example of Marlowe’s working in this way.
But, Chandler’s hero’s honesty is of a different quality because it keeps in line with his moral code and, thinking carefully about this moral code it becomes clear that Marlowe isn’t that American: this moral code may not exactly be British either, but it is certainly the code of the Public School boy and it is certainly the code of Dulwich College. Dulwich instilled in Chandler – as it instilled in countless other boys – the need for self-sacrifice, putting the needs of the community above those of yourself; the need to be honorable in all things (according to Evelyn Waugh, who was at Lancing, ‘”Honour” was a word often on our lips. Dishonesty, impurity, cruelty would have been inconceivable to us…’); the need to be faithful to your school and country. And all this was wrapped up in a loose veneer of chivalry that was part of the Victorian ethos.
This is exactly what Chandler internalized as a child, wrote about as a man and which he came to express vividly in The Simple Art of Murder. The essay offers much more than literary criticism though and it is more than biographical insight. It is Ray struggling to align a series of different ideas: the American language with his Public School upbringing; Modernism with commercialism; being English or being American. And simply because it is so fascinating and enthralling, it deserves a much wider audience.