The Simple Art of Murder
Raymond Chandler wrote one of my favorite essays on the question of high art versus low art in genre fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder.” He scoffs at the notion, thrown about by one of his peers in crime fiction, Dorothy Sayers, that the genres are nothing more than escapist literature. Sayers writes that “it [the detective story] does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement.” Chandler takes offense at her critique of the genre, though he concedes that murder mysteries don’t require literary craft to sell and most fall short of reflecting truth or the human condition, at least in any realistic way. However, Chandler suggests that all literature that requires a person to step out of their own world is escapist. “I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.” According to him, the significant critique of a work of fiction should not be whether or not it’s escapist, i.e., low art, but how close it comes to modeling the real world in which the writer lives and the real characters who share that world.
Dorothy Sayers, Chandler says, “could not or would not give her characters their heads and let them make their own mystery.” She forced them into an “artificial pattern” to satisfy the demands of the genre and paid a price for her compromises. “When [her characters] did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility.” Dashiell Hammett (Maltese Falcon), a critically acclaimed mystery writer and obvious influence on Chandler’s work, on the other hand, based his novels in the facts of his world. Hammett’s stories were “made up out of real things” and concerned with not only revealing a good mystery but also truth and a kind of tough realism that stretched beyond Who Done It?
Chandler describes the protagonist at the heart of detective fiction as one who inhabits a fallen world but more important, one who is real. In his beautiful and famous line, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” Chandler puts flesh to bone as he dictates the characters who must inhabit the pages of his genre. The detective in this world is moral but proud; common and even poor because he has chosen to be a detective; aware of his world and its ugliness but remains aloof; strong, though flawed, and brave; he “is the hero, he is everything.” He is real.
Chandler insists that the heart of the best genre fiction, like literary fiction, must be more than Who Killed Alice? Of course it must meet the demands of its readers, but it will also take up the great question of what it means to be human, and its truths will go beyond murder and murderers to show how men and women live in the face of tragedy and death, how they can be saved. “In everything that is art there is a quality of redemption,” Chandler says.