- Chandler critiques the ‘English formula’ of mystery fiction, based on puzzle solving, and credits Dashiell Hammett with a more realistic tradition.
- Hammett and Chandler started a distinctively American tradition in which the police were corrupt and the detective owed a lot to the gunslingers of pulp Westerns.
- Chandler described the man who walks the mean streets who has been a staple of crime fiction ever since.
- Crime fiction offers a way to explore a society through its flaws.
In 1944, Raymond Chandler’s essay titled The Simple Art of Murder appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. A revised version appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1950, which is available here. Chandler’s short stories and novels such as The Big Sleep, Farewell my Lovely and The Lady in the Lake had established him as one of the leading authors of detective fiction in the English language. It’s a position he’s never been deposed from. The acerbic voice of his protagonist, Philip Marlowe, resonates through crime fiction to this day.
Challenging the English formula
Chandler opened the essay with a critique of the detective as a solver of puzzles, describing it as the ‘English formula’. In doing so, he highlighted the contrast between the distinctly British and American traditions of crime fiction. The English formula was popularised by authors such as Arthur Conan-Doyle and Agatha Christie, whose gentleman amateur detectives approached improbably obscure crimes with impeccable manners. The American tradition places took the Western out of the bandit-infested plains and deserts of the frontier and placed it within the bandit-infested cities that grew after the frontier was conquered. The hard-bitten, hard punching American detectives are the direct descendants of the gunslinging lawmen of a few decades earlier. The American detective prefered neat bourbon to the genteel English indulgences of a cup of tea or a shot of cocaine. While Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Christie’s Hercule Poirot solved crimes through cold intellect, Marlowe’s experience of the dark side of human nature was as important to his method as material evidence.
Under the English formula, the detectives work with the police, of whom the worst that can be said is that they tend to bumble. Inspectors Lestrade and Japp were honest if unimaginative men who would have been successful on their own if they ever investigated the sort of crime a criminal is likely to commit. It was their misfortune to be trapped in the pages of novels where the only crimes they investigate are far too bizarre for real life.
The police of the American tradition are at best incompetent and indifferent and at worst complicit and corrupt. In Chandler’s Los Angeles, the police are as likely to frame Marlowe for a murder as to arrest the murderer. If the detective of the American tradition solves a murder, he must be prepared to dispense his own justice. His fists and his Colt are as necessary to his trade as Holmes’s observational skills are to his. Hammett went so far as to satirise the English formula in his story, The Tenth Clew.
Dividing detective fiction into British and traditions is based on where they were popularised, but there was and is considerable cross-pollination. If Holmes launched the British tradition, Conan-Doyle drew heavily from Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories so the English formula can be traced back to an American writing stories set in France. The American tradition was launched by Hammett and Chandler and if Hammett was a pure American, Chandler was a British subject for much of his life. He was educated in Britain and fought in the British army during the First World War.
Now the distinction has broken down to the extent that many American authors such as Faye Kellerman write in the English tradition while one of the leading exponents of the American tradition is Lee Child, a proud Brummie.
The American formulaIf the American tradition was started by any one man, it was Dashiell Hammett who, in Chandler’s words, ‘gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish’. Hammett worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency until his tuberculosis forced him to find a more sedate career and he turned to a typewriter. The Pinkertons were more involved with strike-breaking than investigating crime, and it’s been suggested that distaste at what he had done as a ‘Pink’ may have been the motivation behind Hammett’s later involvement with socialism. More to the point of a discussion of literature, it may also explain how distrust of authority became so strongly ingrained in the American detective story.
Chandler himself had no background in law enforcement, or what counted as such in the America of the 1920s and 1930s, and acknowledges the primacy of Hammett in his essay. Yet it was Chandler who gave Hammett’s hardboiled detective the crackling prose that makes you feel Marlowe is in the room with you instead of trapped between the pages of a book. In 1939, The Big Sleep introduced Marlowe with:
It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
I defy anyone to be less than curious about what comes next, and that’s as close to dull as Chandler ever allowed Marlowe to be.
Between Hammett, Chandler and Black Mask, the magazine where they published most of their short stories, they launched an American formula that was a counterpoint to the English formula that dominated detective fiction before them. Some of the other tales from the early days of hardboiled fiction have been posted on the Black Mask website.
The man who walks the mean streets
Key to the American formula is the character of the detective himself, who combines the streetwise knowledge of the hustler with the integrity of a knight of mediaeval romance. As Chandler himself puts it:
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, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. 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.
The character endures because, like the mystery format itself, it is not limited to contemporary crime. A writer of science fiction, fantasy or historical fiction may need to introduce a reader to a society, and a detective investigating a crime can be a powerful way of doing that. The detective has a reason to poke his nose (or her nose, but I’ll keep to Chandler’s constructions in this post) into corners that a sensible citizen avoids poking.
A useful piece of advice when writing science fiction is that if a device needs to be described, it’s best to have it malfunction. People rarely pay much attention to equipment when it works properly, but having protagonists trying to repair something or struggle to cope without it is a much more dramatic way of showing something’s importance than simply having someone describe it. In a similar vein, the malfunctions of a society take the form of its crime. They may be revealed by the very nature of crime, such as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 where reading books is a crime, or the crime may be as old fashioned as murder but for reasons that reveal essential truths about the society as with Robert Harris’s Fatherland.
If crime defines a society, the detective may walk the fictional mean streets of Elizabethan London or an O’Neill colony orbiting Proxima Centauri. Novels about Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden are classified respectively as historical fiction and urban fantasy, but the influence of Raymond Chandler is evident in both.
There is no need for the literary detective be a detective in the literal sense. All that is required is the motivation to unravel a mystery. For a police or private detective, it goes with the job. The same could be said for an investigative journalist. However, the protagonist of Philip Kerr’s January Window is the manager of a football team while Minette Walters sent a concerned neighbour on the hunt in The Shape of Snakes.
Seven decades since Philip Marlowe wisecracked on to the page, his offspring are still walking the mean streets, and we are far from tired of walking them with them.