In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption
September 24, 2008 8:46 PM   Subscribe

The realistic style is easy to abuse: from haste, from lack of awareness, from inability to bridge the chasm that lies between what a writer would like to be able to say and what he actually knows how to say. It is easy to fake; brutality is not strength, flipness is not wit, edge-of-the-chair writing can be as boring as flat writing; dalliance with promiscuous blondes can be very dull stuff when described by goaty young men with no other purpose in mind than to describe dalliance with promiscuous blondes. There has been so much of this sort of thing that if a character in a detective story says, "Yeah," the author is automatically a Hammett imitator. Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder" (1950)
posted by Navelgazer (8 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks. Saved to my desktop. I shall read it in its entirety upon waking in the morrow ... unless the apocalypse happens in the meantime.
posted by philip-random at 10:06 PM on September 24, 2008

Absolutely fantastic. Thank you.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 11:02 PM on September 24, 2008

...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. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

I <3 Chandler.
posted by juv3nal at 11:05 PM on September 24, 2008

Right now, as I write this, I am in the midst of a very difficult break-up. I'll be polite and only call it "very difficult", but I could say many, many more things about it. But we'll leave it at very difficult. I have been using Chandler novels on work nights the same way and with the same intent that I use alcohol on the weekends. I like that they're briskly paced and that the plot is insane and doesn't make much sense, but no matter, it's all so entertaining and the writing is so good that I don't much care.

It works basically like an escapist balm and has a lot of appeal to somebody who might otherwise turn to Hemingway, except that Chandler is more compassionate and a lot more funny and probably has a better grasp on how American society works --- the parts of life that don't involve drinking, or tramping around in the forest, or fishing or whatever. The sort of banal class-struggle and mean-spiritedness that rise up like an angry pimple on the face of L.A, here embodied in the form of a night club. Listen to this, I can't believe anybody can write this well:

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

. . .The attendant was the usual half-tough character in a white coat with the name of the restaurant stitched across the front of it in red. He was getting fed up.

"Look, mister," he said with an edge to his voice, "would you mind a whole lot pulling your leg into the car so I can kind of shut the door? Or should I open it all the way so you can fall out?"

The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. It didn't bother him enough to give him the shakes. At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.

That's from the Long Goodbye, not the article but I wanted to post it because I love it and if you've never read Chandler it gives you an idea of what he can do for characterization and do to society with just a few paragraphs.

Another thing about Chandler is that he really cannot write female characters, which is usually not a good thing, but given my state is strangely comforting.

Anyway, this essay is fantastic and like the novels is technically about the state of detective fiction c. 1950, but is actually about a billion other things, especially literature. Listen to this, which is actually from the article:

In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. 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. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. 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. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings.

"All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts."

Good lord.

P.S. Sorry for making this so long, but tonight, work night aside, I've mixed the alcohol and heartache with the Chandler, and this is what came of it.

posted by Tiresias at 7:03 AM on September 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

@ Tiresias:

I hear you. Chandler has gotten me through some hard times myself. Marlowe's monologue in response to being called a "son of a bitch" at the end of The Big Sleep does wonders for a person feeling beset upon by the world.
posted by Amanojaku at 9:08 AM on September 25, 2008

Excellent post.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 10:54 AM on September 25, 2008

What Jane Austen was for romantic irony and the elevation of the "women's novel" to literature, Chandler was for the pulp detective novel.
posted by djfiander at 11:54 AM on September 25, 2008

I first read Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" after reading a 1980 (I think) TIME magazine article about "the new hardboiled detective stories" that quoted it (the same article also introduced me to George Chesbro's Mongo the Magnificent detective stories, too). I have been quoting chunks of the Chandler essay ever since, most often his summary of the character of the hard-boiled detective (mostly quoted by juv3nal above), and I find Chandler's summary of Hammett's writing:

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.

to be one of the finest compliments I have ever encountered.
posted by steveburnett at 2:51 PM on September 25, 2008

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