In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler explores detective fiction in general, but especially the hard-boiled kind he perfected. It includes my favorite bit of writing advice: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” By which he meant, if you’re not sure what should happen next, make things worse in the most exciting way you can. Which is exactly how his books and stories work—everything goes from bad to worse to the worst imaginable… and then somehow turns out all right in the end.
Novelist Ross MacDonald said Raymond Chandler “wrote like a slumming angel.” He set his books in the seedy underbelly of 1930s and ’40s Los Angeles and its surrounding cities, showing the grime and moral decay that Hollywood glossed over with its movies. The California sun beat down on ugliness and beauty alike, and Chandler strove to capture that combination in his writing.
I was probably sixteen when I read my first Raymond Chandler mystery, The Big Sleep. It entranced me, and the power of his writing impressed me so much, I fell in love with hard-boiled detective stories and their cousin, film noir, all on the strength of that one novel.
I love Raymond Chandler’s books more for how he writes them than what he writes about. Yes, I love mysteries, but find his plots often convoluted. They don’t always resolve the way I’d like them to. He himself admitted that he didn’t know who killed one particular character in The Big Sleep. But the way he writes? I am continually in awe. Here are a few quotations from his books to show you what I mean:
Montmar Vista was a few dozen houses of various sizes and shapes hanging by their teeth and eyebrows to a spur of mountain and looking as if a good sneeze would drop them down among the box lunches on the beach. —Farewell, My Lovely
There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. —The Long Goodbye
The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips. — The Lady in the Lake
It was a nice face, a face you get to like. Pretty, but not so pretty that you would have to wear brass knuckles every time you took it out. — Farewell, My Lovely
I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets. — The Big Sleep
I went out to the kitchen to make coffee—yards of coffee. Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The life-blood of tired men. — The Long Goodbye
As you’ve probably gathered, Chandler’s books don’t shy away from subjects that might be shocking, or even taboo. Murder, greed, lust, drug use, blackmail, alcoholism, deviant behavior, and theft all make appearances, some regularly. What’s remarkable about his writing is that he can include subjects like these without making his books dirty.
My sixteen-year-old self didn’t really get some of the things alluded to in The Big Sleep. I figured out that someone was being blackmailed with a photo of them naked, but I missed the other hints about even seedier subjects. This is because Chandler writes about these things obliquely, not glorifying them by dwelling on them. Instead, he glosses over them so they don’t gain importance from his attention. They exist, but he will not dwell on them.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he strikes that balance. And I think something else he wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder” goes a long way to explain it. When discussing the sort of detectives he wrote, Chandler said, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” His fictional hero, Philip Marlowe, is such a man. He’s innately honorable, moral, unflinching, and even kind. Though he touches dirt in his cases, he doesn’t become dirty himself. Therefore, neither do his readers.
I know I’m practically turning this whole article into one long string of quotations, but I want to include one more. Why? Because it so perfectly encapsulates why I love to read detective fiction. When he addressed that question in “The Simple Art of Murder,” he said that it all boils down to the fact that everyone “must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts.” Reading fiction, especially mysteries, is my favorite way to do that. And Raymond Chandler’s books delight me most of all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s books “Cloaked” and “Dancing Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com