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Raymond Chandler on classic detective fiction

Raymond Chandler didnt just write some of the best American detective fiction. He also wrote about the genre and in much the same hard-boiled style of his own Philip Marlowe. He takes no captives, whether he is writing about authors or readers. Show me a man or woman who cannot stand mysteries, wrote Chandler in 1949, and I will show you a fool, a clever foolperhapsbut a fool just the same.As for the authors, he seems particularly to have disliked Agatha Christie, writing of one of her novels that the whole setup for the crime requires such a fluky set of happenings that it could never seem real. Chandler thought that Conan Doyle showed no knowledge whatever of the organization of Scotland Yards men and added that Christie commits the same stupidities in our time. You do not fool the reader, he added, by hiding clues or faking character la Christie.Since I do not want to be accounted a fool I am happy to admit to loving mysteries, to devouring them no less. But I am that supposedly most timid of detective fiction devotees, the lover of the English cozy. If youre not familiar with the term, it refers to the classic English story, most commonly set in some idealized English village, with a cast of characters that must include a vicar, a tweedy spinster, a local landowner and a retired army officer, preferably with military bearing and a suitable mustache. In other words, the setting must be utterly predictable in order that nothing steps in to interfere with the readers attention to the puzzle itself. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh andMargery Allingham were the queens of this sort of story in mid-20th century England, and many others have followed them. Critics and readers have noted that the cozy places murder in the context of a stable, class-conscious English society that was fast disappearing just as the stories themselves were at their most popular. They were essentially an exercise in nostalgia if not a yearning for a putatively better world that lay back beyond the two world wars.

Todays lists of detective fiction, in contrast, are preponderantly evasive of nostalgia or some settled social order. Some are depressingly realistic. In these the detectives usually have the kind of feet of clay that end up in the divorce court and most often must juggle the solving of a crime, itself requiring feats of clinical reasoning, with a life and life-style that suggests they are anything but able to apply the same reasonable standards to the network of personal relationships in their own dysfunctional lives. By God they can solve crimes, but set their own lives in order? I dont think so. The other choice is to set the books in either another time or place, or both. A young, attractive female detective has fled an unhappy relationship to check out life in Beijing, or the sleuth happens to be a monastic herbalist from the thirteenth century or perhaps Sherlock Holmes unjustly neglected second cousin, the greatest detective in late nineteenth century Helsinki.If I dont like these developments, and I dont, must I be classified as pining for the world of St. Mary Mead, where the bicycles have little baskets on the front handlebars, or the old New Scotland Yard, where mysteries are solved over tea and ham sandwiches while the fog swirls around outside? I used to think so, and I am not sure I liked myself for it, but I am happy to report that Raymond Chandler let me off the hook. Writing about the difficulty of introducing love interest into detective fiction, he explains that it is most often a problem because it creates a kind of suspense that is antagonistic and not complementary to the detectives struggle to solve the problem. In other words, its a distraction, and I must say that if the story is set in medieval Venice or Bengal of the Raj, that is also distracting. On the other hand, its not always that it distracts from the puzzle that is important, because not all of us care about solving the puzzle. Like Chandler, I never try. And like Chandler too, I am happy to see myself alongside him in the fourth of his four kinds of readers, the intellectual literate reader who reads mysteries because they are almost the only kind of fiction that does not get too big for its boots. If I want to learn about imperial China or Czarist Russia, I read history. If I want to be entertained, I want tea and crumpets in the library, with just a little spot of blood on the rug. What Chandler says about the detective can be applied analogously to the whole genre: A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm.

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I'm very much on the same wavelength. I may guess at the murderer, but only casually. That doesn't matter. The story is the thing, and the characterization. And the writing cannot be bad or clumsy or merely formulaic - that's very important. I must have read something by Chandler, but it didn't leave me wanting to come back for more, as did Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, P. D. James, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Georges Simenon, from over there, and, from this side of the ocean, Dashiell Hammett, Rex Stout, and Ross Thomas. Good versus evil, suspense, a well-told tale, and characters you care about.

A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm."I may guess at the murderer, but only casually. That doesnt matter. The story is the thing, and the characterization."Two of my favorite mystery/crime writers are Patricia Highsmith (Ripley novels) and Paul Auster.Highsmith inverts the crime novel on its head in that her protagonist is the criminal. He eventually marries, but the wife remains conveniently detached and away almost always. Auster's noves are hard to peg as to genre; his protagonists are often recovering from some terrible loss--so they may have been married, but usually aren't. Part of the charm of his "detectives," is that they are NOT detached, but often think they are.

What did Chandler mean when he said Agatha faked clues? I've always admired her clues-- out in the open for everyone to see -- but not everyone sees that they *are* clues. And that's the difference between Poirot and most of the other "detectives". Spoiler alert: My favorite Agatha clue is the detail about the little screw that was said have fallen out of something or other, and was said to have been found the room near a far wall . Poirot points out that a screw that falls doesn't roll in a straight line away from where it was -- it drops and then moves about on a small circle. (I've forgotten which book it was in.)

I was jonesing for Agatha Christie and started rereading her mysteries a few weeks ago. They are as enjoyable as I remember them, and, now that we have google, I finally learned what a "vegetable marrow" is. Martha Grimes' Inspector Jury mysteries, set in the village of Long Piddleton , might be an "English cozy". Her hero sure meets the "never gets married" criteria; I read through a bunch of the novels, waiting for some resolution in the characters' love lives, it seems they're just permanently un-resolved, though, which I find kind of unsatisfying.

I neglected to include Ellis Peters among my favorite mystery writers. Her settings in twelfth-century England are apparently well researched and, so, even more fun because they're trustworthy. As always, though, it's the stories and the characters that matter most, by far.Jean (6:21 pm), Don't Highsmith's books involve a lot of cruelty and violence? An obsession with graphic violence seems characteristic of much modern stuff. That's a big turnoff for me. (I confess that I like Dashiell Hammett despite the violence. But he doesn't enjoy rubbing his nose in it the way the moderns do. Just a quick description ("My bullet cut the gullet out of him.") and he's off and running with the plot.

A classic cosy series, a Scottish one, is M . C. Beaton's Seamus Macbeth series. Tiny, tiny town, great recurring all too human characters, and usually at least a good plot. Very short, some just novellas. And a detective who is most appealing to the ladies, but can't make up his mind to really pursue the beauteous Priscilla. David-- like you I can't stand the really gory ones. I used to enjoy the Cajun Dave Robichaux series, but it has turned just too brutal. Nobody has mentioned Josephine Tey. She belongs up there with Agatha and Ngaio and P. D. Her detective, inspector Grant, is a very believable Scotland Yard man. Then there were the hundreds of Scotland Yard boOks by John Creasy. They haven't worn too well, apparently.

Thanks, Ann, for reminding us of Josephine Tey. I guess I'd forgotten her because she wrote so few books and it's been so long since I read any. Have just downloaded the first chapter of The Franchise Affair to jog my memory.Selection:

So he sat there, in the lazy atmosphere of a spring evening in a little market town, staring at the last patch of sunlight on his desk (the mahogany desk with the brass inlay that his grandfather had scandalised the family by bringing home from Paris) and thought about going home. In the patch of sunlight was his tea-tray; and it was typical of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet that tea was no affair of a japanned tin tray and a kitchen cup. At 3:50 exactly on every working day Miss Tuff bore into his office a lacquer tray covered with a fair white cloth and bearing a cup of tea in blue-patterned china, and, on a plate to match, two biscuits; petit-beurre Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, digestive Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Surely many of us have read English cozies (if that's the correct plural) for the same reason we read P.G. Wodehouse -- nostalgia, I suppose, even for a world we never knew; to uphold our faith in a world in which, whatever be the complications, justice is done and things sort themselves out; and, at least in the case of PGW, the sheer pleasure of reading one of the great stylists of the twentieth century. No one, however, has mentioned the greatest of the Golden Age of English detective stories: Dorothy Sayers, with her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, ex-war hero, who knows almost everything about everything, and his man Bunter, who has all the brain power and accomplishments of Jeeves. Raymond Chandler is operating in a different universe from Marsh, Sayers, Tey, and the rest. An equally valid universe, and no doubt more true to life (whatever that means), but different.

Funny, I never took to Sayers. Couldn't say why. Nor to Marsh. And Allingham could be iffy - as I recall, there's an English darkness in some of her things that's a little offputting.I'm enjoying the Pears, but I find the protagonist (the Italian detective) lightly drawn and not entirely sympathetic. The English husband is much more interesting and believable. Which makes sense, since the author is English.

Oops, that should have been Seamus Macbeth.I couln't stand Peter Wimsey. What a prissy man. Didn't like the Allimgham books either. Here are some more contemporary writers I've liked: Alexander McColl-Smith (about the delightful African lady sleuth -- imternational best sellers), Joan Hess (funny ones about crazy Arkansans), Ian Pears (English, about the art world), the late Ralph McInerny (of N.D.'s philosoPhy dept. ) was one of the best American ones, Ruth Rendell (too dark for me but she writes well). John LeCarre' is in a class by himself.And there's the great ones, The Brothers Karamazov and Hamlet. About Wodehouse-- Graham Greene thought he was one of the greatest writers of the century. He's 10 times greater than Twain.

I didn't know McInerny, Ann, so I downloaded the first chapter of Last Things: A Father Dowling Mystery. The prose in the first paragraph failed the clunkiness test. He was probably a much better philosophy professor than novelist :o)

Double oops == Paul L. reminds me that Macbeth's firt name is "Hamish".Here's another suggestion for those who don't know him, Tony Hilerman. His detectives are native Americans working on the Western reservations. One of the best.

Ann, thanks for mentioning Hillerman, not only for his excellent native detectives, especially Joe Leaphart, but how the landscape and the values of native Americans move the solution to completion.Of late, I really liked Peter Quinn and the Judge Crater case.Crackling good!

In the NYT magazine I think someone said how much he appreciated the TV version of Ner Wolfe that ran for two years in the ealy 2000's _ I'd also like to second that if you can lay hands on the DVDs of that series.

Forget the TV series, Bob. Read the books.

Nero Wolfe was the fat detective with the orchids, right? Didn't get into them much. It helped to imagine Sidney Greenstreet playing the part. Or maybe even George Saunders with a lot of padding. Either could add the right pinch of sinister to the role. Sadly, everyone I want to cast in the movies in my head is long dead. Sigh.

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About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.