Between the two world wars, detective fiction supposedly went through a Golden Age. Coined by the literary critic Howard Haycraft in 1941’s Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, this era was dominated by a certain type of mystery: “cozy” novels with aristocratic manners and hard-to-believe plots. They were invariably British (or written by Anglophilic Americans) and typically featured eccentric sleuths modeled after Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The most famous examples include Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.
In the traditional Golden Age plot, a murder occurs — but not for any apparent reason beyond puzzle solving. After the discovery of the body (which is almost never found rotting), the private detective arrives on the scene, which is usually somewhere sensational, like a Georgian mansion or a yacht traveling the Nile. From here, suspects are questioned and clues examined. It’s an impersonal affair, almost like moving chess pieces or trying the Sunday crossword. By the end, the detective will assemble all of the concerned parties and explain to them how he or she solved the case with superhuman intelligence and the supernatural power of never being wrong. The criminal is then dramatically outed. Some culprits choose suicide, while some let the law run its course. This small world goes back to normal, people get married, and thus the novel ends.
This is textbook escapism. At the time, it was certainly judged that way and few outside of the lending library and Book of the Month Club took these novels seriously. The few who did either sought to bring further order, as in the case of Monsignor Ronald Knox, who created “The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction,” or actively tried to clutter up the all too tidy world of detective fiction.
Raymond Chandler, an American-born writer who had spent most of his young life in England with his Irish mother, was in the latter category. After being fired from his high-paying job at the Dabney Oil Syndicate due to problems stemming from alcoholism, Chandler took up writing at the age of 45 in 1933. Before writing, the author had lived a tough life, and as a result, his later detective novels, which feature the archetypal P.I. Philip Marlowe, inject a hard-boiled realism that cannot be found in other novels from that era.
Chandler — like his literary hero Dashiell Hammett, whom Chandler said “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley” — preached a cynical, urban and very American style of writing, turning the quaint detective novel into the crime novel. At the time, the Chandler-Hammett school of detective fiction was known as “hard-boiled” and stood in direct contrast to the British Golden Age.
“The Simple Art of Murder,” which was first published in The Atlantic in December 1944, is essentially Chandler laying bare the ethos behind hard-boiled detective fiction. In it, Chandler, who at times reads like a proponent of the realist (or naturalist) school, makes two foundational claims:
1. “Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”
2. “All reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce or The Diary of the Forgotten Man.”
From here, Chandler spends a significant portion of the essay savaging the British style of mystery writing. One novel in particular, A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, is reserved as a special case of foolhardy unreality. Conceding that the novel, which was published in 1922, could have been published in 1944, Chandler goes on to highlight seven instances of ignorance on Milne’s part in The Red House Mystery. From a lack of knowledge concerning police procedure to impossibly hard corpse switching, “The Simple Art of Murder” not only wags its proverbial finger at Milne’s novel but tsk-tsks the entire genre.
For Chandler, the detective novel should be a “realist in murder,” meaning it should inhabit “a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities.” Taking Hammett, who had been a private detective with the infamous Pinkerton agency before becoming a writer, as the best example of the more realistic school of crime writing, Chandler expounds upon how detective novels should represent the unsafe world of precarious civilization, not the idealized and contained world of the country house.
Oddly enough, “The Simple Art of Murder” doesn’t totally gel with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. While Chandler’s seven detective novels certainly promote a hard-boiled worldview with Los Angeles as the hardest of all, Chandler’s protagonist is not without flashes of Poirot. Marlowe is a virginal character who prefers playing chess alone and sneaking in literary references when no else seems to be listening. The Marlowe novels and Chandler himself have become, in the words of Telegraph writer Jake Kerridge, “the detective writer of choice for ‘highbrows.’” Quite the irony given that “The Simple Art of Murder” often takes aim at literary critics and pretension.
Besides being one of the earliest pieces of detective fiction criticism written by a detective fiction writer himself, “The Simple Art of Murder” also represents a sea change in the history of the mystery novel. Clearly written as a counterpoint to the then lingering popularity of the Golden Age detective novel, the essay and its call for more realistic detective fiction must have been receptively received by many at the time, especially American writers. With the coming of film noir following World War II, the American style of hard-boiled, which had begun in earnest in the 1920s, was ascendant. Since then, the hard-boiled style, as well as its logical offshoot of the police procedural have dominated mystery. Few Golden Age-style detective novels are written anymore, and the ones that are have fared nowhere near as well as the stark Scandinavian thrillers or other examples of Euro noir. We can partially thank Chandler for this development, for “The Simple Art of Murder” more or less put the critical stake in the heart of detective fiction’s second and most popular wave.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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