Raymond Chandler on classic detective fiction
Paul Lakeland July 17, 2011 - 6:07pm
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.
About the Author
Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.