Lighten Up, Ray!

Directives from Chairman Chandler

“You know Chandler. Always griping about something.”
Chandler himself, in a letter to Edward Carter, 1950

Raymond Chandler was not a happy camper. In fact, he may have been about the crankiest writer who ever lived. He would have burned through the mumble-mouthed the murky, puff-headed cyber forest of discussion groups, blogs, web sites and Twitter like Napalm.

Apparently never really that pleased with his own work, and prone to self-doubt, self-pity and self-loathing, he continually discussed, critiqued, defended, explained and picked viciously at his work. (He lamented that his novel, The Little Sister, was “nothing in it but style and dialogue and characters.”) and he was even harder on the rest of the world.

Yet, his landmark essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” first published in the December 1944 issue of The Atlantic Monthly,  wherein he outlined his definition of what a private detective should (or could) be, is, arguably, the most quoted and referred to piece of mystery criticism ever written. Here’s how he wraps it all up:

“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.”

He had things to say on other subjexts as well…

On classics…

  • “There are no “classics” of crime and detection. Not one. Within its frame of reference, which is the only way it should be judged, a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed. No story or novel of mystery has done that yet. Few have come close. Which is one of the principal reasons why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.”
    – from the introduction to The Simple Art of Murder (1950, anthology)

On quality…

  • “The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average — or only slightly above average — detective story does…. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.”
    -from The Simple Art of Murder (December 1944, The Atlantic Monthly)

On best sellers…

  • “…promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture.”
    -from The Simple Art of Murder (December 1944, The Atlantic Monthly)

On writing

  • “Don’t ever write anything you don’t like yourself and if you do like it, don’t take anyone’s advice about changing it. They just don’t know.”

On writers

  • “They live over-strained lives in which far too much humanity is sacrificed to far too little art.”

On publishing

  • May 22, 1950
    To: Hardwick Mosely
    I have a note… that Houghton-Mifflin would like a formal consent from me for… reprint editions of The Little Sister and The Simple Art of Murder. Please take this as my consent. Please send me my end of the take as soon as possible as the cat needs a new basket. I had of course originally planned to republish these books myself. A close friend… has a small hand press and a fair supply of deckle-edged vellum, and also a font or so of 24-point Goudy Lombardi capitals. We thought we could turn out something really quite nice, say in a limited edition of nine copies, handsomely autographed by the author during a rare moment of sobriety, and retailing at about $65 a copy. We were quite confident of the result, but I shall not specify what result…— from Raymond Chandler Speaking

On Hollywood

  • “If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood and if they had been any better I should not have come.”
  • “They don’t want you until you have made a name, and by the time you have made a name, you have developed some kind of talent they can’t use. All they will do is spoil it, if you let them.”
  • “Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver’s shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and a brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunch-box.”
    cited in “How Raymond Chandler Made a Killing at the Movies” by Hugh Tynan

Secret Writing Tip…

  • “When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
    from the introduction to Trouble Is My Business
Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.

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