No serious attempt to unravel the private eye can ignore Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” which originally appeared in the December 1944 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, reprinted in the April 15, 1950 issue Saturday Review of Literature, and subsequently served as the non-fiction centrepiece (and title) of a 1950 collection of stories by Chandler.
It’s arguably the most-quoted non-fiction piece on detective fiction ever written, full of bon mots like “Hammett gave murder back to the people wjho commit it for a reason.”
So why should this site be any different? In the following excerpt, Chandler’s focus is on the eye himself, not so much where his literary forebears are, but what sort of person they are. Or should be:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. 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 a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
The story is this man’s 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. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”
OH, AND ONE MORE THING…
If it looks like I’m occasionally breaking my own rules, well, maybe I am. Please read It’s my prerogative…
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Illustration of Chandler courtesy of Steven Weissman.