Wednesday Book Club: The Simple Art of Murder

Wednesday, 4 March 2009 — 11:43am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The Simple Art of Murder (1950) by Raymond Chandler.

In brief: Strangely enough, Chandler’s vision of the hard-boiled private eye comes off more lucidly in his literary criticism than in the detective stories for which he is known. His reluctance to make his puzzles too neat sometimes renders his mysteries without any puzzle at all, leaving it up to his morally conflicted characters to carry the day. Often they do, but not always.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Simple Art of Murder, keep reading below.)

The Simple Art of Murder is an anthology of short works by Raymond Chandler, best known for cementing the definitive vision of the American private eye in his Philip Marlowe novels and his work for the screen (of which his screenplay adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, in collaboration with director Billy Wilder, is an especial highlight). The collection takes its title from the opening essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”—which I would call, with no exaggeration, an indispensable work of genre criticism and mandatory reading for anyone interested in the evolution of the mystery.

For my part, I’ve returned to the essay time and again over the years, but I’d never read the short stories and novellas that followed it in full. Although most of the stories in The Simple Art of Murder predate both the essay and the Marlowe series, their arrangement in the anthology suggests that one reads the book as a sort of theme and variations, or a hypothesis of purpose followed by a series of experimental demonstrations.

I’ll not say too much about Chandler’s essay, disposed as I am to avoid using the weekly book review to reminisce about things I have already read and digested many times. I should, however, provide a summary: “The Simple Art of Murder” is a “state of the genre” essay that attacks the conventional parlour-room whodunit for its excessive contrivances, and its consequent ignorance of the human realities of murder. It’s a brilliant, polished scalpel of literary dissection, and even longtime Chandler readers accustomed to his prose mastery of American street idiom may be surprised at the author’s British precision as a critic.

There is a choice paragraph in the essay that is a pretty compelling observation about all literature and its authorship—namely, that authors are often either successful plotters or stylists, but far too rarely both:

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight deductive or logic and deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The coolheaded constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace, and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply will not be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis.

So perhaps one should not be perplexed that the novellas in The Simple Art of Murder reveal Chandler to be no exception to his own rule.

One cannot overstate the polish of Chandler’s prose, the core of which is the hard-edged, broken-nosed dialogue. It’s always natural, always slick, but often so thick with idiom you have to read it twice. A good deal of the characters display a certain reluctance to come out and say what they mean in straightforward declarative sentences, so the most uncomfortable truths come out by implication.

On the flipside, the trouble is that the element of mystery is usually incidental to the plot. Chandler doesn’t write whodunits; he writes whydunits—and one can only infer so much about a motive, be it a criminal’s or a detective’s, from the empirical evidence. A lot of it necessarily comes from confessions, which limits the detective’s role to asking the right people the right questions and hoping they spill the beans. I may as well reuse the line I applied to John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: these are plots that look a lot better from the back than the front.

In some cases, this works very well: “Spanish Blood”, a story about a murder that looks so suspiciously political that the victim’s electoral opponents go too far to cover themselves, finishes with a prototypical Chandler endgame where the detective feeds everyone in the room his solution—the wrong solution—only to double back and reveal, after the gunpowder settles, that he intentionally lied to everyone (reader included) to protect the actual culprit. It looks beautiful once you’re done, but along the way you can’t help but think the detective took one too many leaps of faith unsustained by logical deduction.

It’s a habit of Chandler’s, in this volume at least: the conclusions are superb, but there is little in the mysteries, as they initially appear, that suggest an elegant solution lies beneath. There’s some evidence that Chandler likes his mysteries that way: his model for success is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, about which he says the following:

There are also a few badly scared champions of the formal or classic mystery who think that no story is a detective story which does not pose a formal and exact problem and arrange the clues around it with neat labels on them. Such would point out, for example, that in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story), because the reader is kept thinking about something else. Yet in The Glass Key the reader is constantly reminded that the question is who killed Taylor Henry, and exactly the same effect is obtained—an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes, and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. The rest is spillikins in the parlor.

The tipping point in a Chandler story is never so much the revelation of who killed whom with the candlestick in the billiard room, but a moral decision on the detective’s part: whether to pursue something or let it go, whether to protect somebody or leave their fates to conventional justice. “I’ll Be Waiting”, the only short story in the volume—that is, the only one under forty to fifty pages—is a vignette about nothing more than that: a hotel detective who protects a girl client instead of making the objectively correct move, and suffers the personal consequences.

Where the detective has no ethical stake—no grey area of what the state would call corruption but a person would call morally conscientious—the story falls flat on its face. “Pearls Are a Nuisance” is a good example: what begins as a when-worlds-collide buddy comedy between a noble, upstanding detective who can only speak in perfect grammatical English and a drunken all-American tough guy quickly wears thin. The parody of the high-class gentleman sleuth retrieving pearls to make nice with his spasmodic fiancée becomes no more than an indulgent exercise in contrasting idiomatic dialogue (which Chandler pulls off without trouble), but the story overstays its welcome and becomes no better than the butts of Chandler’s joke.

Amazing as it may be how much plot Chandler routinely crams into forty pages—enough to fill a feature-length motion picture—one comes away from The Simple Art of Murder with the impression that his ambition is better suited to the full-length novel, where tangled plots and ethically disenchanted detectives can each come into their own without shoving the other one to the sidelines. The essay notwithstanding, I recommend that the first-time Chandler reader pick up a Marlowe novel instead, like The Big Sleep or the film of the same.


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One rejoinder to “Wednesday Book Club: The Simple Art of Murder

  1. I think that Lord Peter Wimsey said it rather better: “It isn’t really difficult to write books. Especially if you either write a rotten story in good English or a good story in rotten English, which is as far as most people seem to get nowadays.” Of course, that’s before he met Harriet Vane!

    Of course, Lord Peter is no Sherlock Holmes: his solutions are not those of a “grim logician”, but are intuitive leaps, as explained very clearly in this passage from _Whose Body_:

    And then it happened—the thing he had been half-unconsciously expecting. It happened suddenly, surely, as unmistakably as sunrise. He remembered—not one thing, nor another thing, nor a logical succession of things, but everything—the whole thing, perfect, complete, in all its dimensions as it were and instantaneously; as if he stood outside the world and saw it suspended in infinitely dimensional space. He no longer needed to reason about it, or even to think about it. He knew it.

    There is a game in which one is presented with a jumble of letters and is required to make a word out of them, as thus:

    C O S S S S R I

    The slow way of solving the problem is to try out all the permutations and combinations in turn, throwing away impossible conjunctions of letters, as:

    S S S I R C


    S C S R S O

    Another way is to stare at the incoördinate elements until, by no logical process that the conscious mind can detect, or under some adventitious external stimulus, the combination

    S C I S S O R S

    presents itself with calm certainty. After that, one does not even need to arrange the letters in order. The thing is done.

    Sunday, 8 March 2009 at 10:25am

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