|a tough critic|
In a three-part essay, I explore crime writer Raymond Chandler's attitude toward the classical British detective novel. Though Chandler, one of the major figures in the American hard-boiled mystery movement, commonly is portrayed as deeply hostile to classical British detection, the truth, I argue, is a rather more complex matter. (for Parts Two and Three, see http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/12/amateur-detective-just-wont-do-raymond.html and http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2011/12/amateur-detective-just-wont-do-raymond_19.html )
Reading Englishman Nicholas Blake's mystery novel The Beast Must Die (1938) for the first time in 1950, the great American hard-boiled detective novelist Raymond Chandler was moved to comment (in a letter to future mystery critic James Sandoe) on his disappointment with the tale. Chandler wrote that he initially had found the story “damn good and extremely well written.” He went on to lament, however, the “devastating effect” on the tale “of the entrance of the detective, Nigel Strangeways, an amateur with wife tagging along.”
|Chandler liked the story |
but hated the detective
Chandler conceded that the “private eye”-- the type of detective associated most prominently with his own work (and that of his contemporary Dashiell Hammett)--”admittedly is an exaggeration—a fantasy.” Nevertheless, he asserted of the private eye that “at least he's an exaggeration of the possible.” Contrarily, Chandler declared, the “amateur gentleman who outthinks Scotland Yard is just plain silly.” In fictional mystery, Chandler concluded peremptorily, “the amateur detective just won't do.”
|Chandler thought Lord Peter Wimsey |
intolerably absurd and affected
Raymond Chandler's most famous (or notorious) expression of hostile views toward British detective fiction is found in his deliberately polemical 1944 Atlantic Monthly essay, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Starting from the premise that “fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic,” Chandler went on to contrast the “American” hard-boiled detective novel with the classical fair play puzzle mystery most associated with Great Britain (though in fact the progenitor of the classic form, Edgar Allan Poe, was an American and at the time Chandler wrote his essay there were, as he concedes, numerous American mystery writers, such as Ellery Queen and Rex Stout, who worked in that form).
|a tough take|
In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler unquestionably deems tales in the classical tradition inferior to those from the hard-boiled school of crime fiction. Indeed, in the essay Chandler’s comments on British detective fiction often are etched in acid, leading to the conclusion on the part of most genre critics and historians that the hard-boiled author held all classical English mystery in contempt. “Chandler despised the English school of crime writing,” pronounces modern British “Crime Queen” P. D. James in her recent short genre survey, Talking about Detective Fiction (2009).
|P. D. James|
Grande Dame of classical British detection
This pearl of conventional wisdom that James flashes, is, however, not quite so impressive when given a more searching glance. Only two years after the appearance in print of “The Simple Art of Murder” Chandler himself urged a correspondent, mystery genre historian Howard Haycraft, “You must not take a polemic piece of writing like my own article from the Atlantic too literally. I could have written a piece of propaganda in favor of the detective story just as easily. All polemic writing is over-stated.”
|Howard Haycraft was far friendlier to the |
British amateur detective than was Raymond Chandler
While Chandler, like the American literary critic Edmund Wilson, admittedly disdained the most famous exponents of the classical English mystery, the Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh (and the men who wrote like them), he elsewhere expressed some measure of admiration for a pair of today less heralded classical English detective novelists, R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts. This essay explores Chandler's varying views of classical English detective novelists and offers an explanation for this variance.
To be sure, in “The Simple Art of Murder” one finds language suggesting that Chandler held the classical clue puzzle detective story broadly in contempt, as when the author writes dismissively of “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper” and “the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis.” Yet much of Chandler’s criticism in “Simple Art” is focused on other matters.
|In "The Simple Art of Murder" Chandler scorns what he terms|
"futzing around" with timetables
For one thing, the hard-boiled author spends a good deal of his verbiage in the essay attacking fair play puzzle detective novels on the very specific ground of their supposed frequent failure to adhere to the fair play standard in the presentation of clues (thus implying that Chandler himself deemed the fair play standard something worthy of adherence). Agatha Christie, for example, is scornfully treated by Chandler on fair play grounds (“Only a halfwit could guess it,” he writes disgustedly of the solution the foremost Crime Queen provided for the slaying in her famous tale Murder on the Orient Express).
|Can only a halfwit guess the solution?|
Most strikingly to me, in “Simple Art” Chandler over and over blasts the classical detective novel on what can be termed class grounds. Though the hard-boiled author memorably scourges a classical English detective tale like A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery (1922) for its illogic and lack of realism, he reserves great scorn as well for Milne’s privileged and leisured amateur detective. “The detective in the case is an insouciant gent named Antony Gillingham, a nice lad with a cheery eye, a cozy little flat in London, and that airy manner,” writes Chandler sarcastically. “He is not making any money on the assignment, but is always available when the local gendarmerie loses its notebook. The
English police seem to endure him with their customary stoicism; but I shudder to think of what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city would do to him.”
|Wodehouse may have loved it|
but Chandler sure didn't
Something is going on here besides Chandler’s concern with realism. The author sounds acerbic class notes throughout his “Simple Art” essay. When praising his hard-boiled predecessor Dashiell Hammett for bringing something fundamentally new and more real to the detective fiction genre, Chandler tellingly complains of English mystery novelists filling their tales with accounts of “dukes and Venetian vases.”
|Do Venetian vases diminish detective novels?|
the model for detective fiction writers?
In addition to A. A. Milne’s Antony Gillingham (who only ever appeared in one novel), those “detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility” to whom Chandler referred so scathingly in “Simple Art” must have been those fictive creations of Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, three British Crime Queens who at this time (the early to mid-1940s) had risen--along with the fourth British Crime Queen, Agatha Christie--to preeminence in the field of classical British mystery. Chandler did not in fact despise the entire “English school of crime writing,” as P. D. James and others have claimed. He despised the genteel detective school of crime writing that since the 1940s has been most strongly associated with Sayers, Marsh and Allingham.
creator of Albert Campion
creator of Roderick Alleyn
|Dorothy L. Sayers|
creator of Lord Peter Wimsey
|Chandler deemed Gaudy Night |
"the only kind of Public School man
who could make a real detective"
 Raymond Chandler to James Sandoe, 7 December 1950, printed in Frank MacShane, ed., Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 246.
 P. D. James, Talking about Detective Fiction (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2009), 80; Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker, eds., Raymond Chandler Speaking (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 52 (originally published 1962). Howard Haycraft was the author and editor of, respectively, the landmark mystery surveys Murder for Pleasure (1941) and The Art of the Mystery Story (1946). Raymond Chandler’s biographers have tended, like P. D. James, to over-generalize Chandler’s hostility toward the classical English detective novel (as have academic authorities in general). Chandler’s first major biographer, Frank MacShane, in one line concedes that Chandler “admired” Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman, yet he does not explain why Chandler did so and elsewhere he refers broadly to “Chandler’s dislike of deductive detective stories.” Frank MacShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976), 62, 67. Tom Hiney, Chandler’s second major biographer, similarly emphasizes Chandler’s distaste for formal deductive apparatus in detective novels, although in an endnote he makes this concession: “By the end of his life [Chandler] was reading little else except mysteries…that he became addicted to the genre of which he so often spoke disdainfully, is not in doubt. He even started enjoying the formulaic English school of detection that he thought so lifeless.” Tom Hiney, Raymond Chandler: A Biography (New York: Grove Press, 1997), 292, endnote 8. In fact, Chandler’s correspondence suggests that the hardboiled author’s “addiction” to novels of crime and mystery, which encompassed some English tales of formal detection, took hold a considerable time before “the end of his life.” For more searching analyses of Chandler’s views on detective fiction, see Jacques Barzun’s perceptive essay, “The Aesthetics of the Criminous,” American Scholar 53 (Spring 1984): 239-241 and William Marling’s short critical study Raymond Chandler (Boston: Twayne, 1986).
 Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” reprinted in Raymond Chandler, Later Novels and Other Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 979, 980, 984. In a letter written four years before “Simple Art” appeared Chandler took a similar stance on another classic Christie, pronouncing as “bunk” claims that the Crime Queen’s novel And Then there Were None (1939) was “an honest crime story” (Chandler thought the portrayal of the murderer’s character was psychologically unsound and thus unfairly deceptive). Raymond Chandler to George Harmon Coxe, 27 June 1940, Letters, 16. Chandler had read the book only on the recommendation of George Harmon Coxe, a fellow crime writer (though a rather more “slick” and commercial one than Chandler).
 Chandler, “Simple Art,” 983.
 Ibid., 987, 988-989.
 Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn is actually a professional detective, a policeman, but in all other ways he resembles his brethren, Sayers’ Peter Wimsy and Allingham’s Albert Campion.
 Raymond Chandler to James Sandoe, 25 September, 31 October 1951, Letters, 291, 296. Chandler made clear as well that he objected to genteel detectives’ exceptionally accomplished wives, noting acerbically after reading Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die that “this wife [of Blake’s series detective, Nigel Strangeways] is one of the world’s three greatest female explorers, which puts her in the same distinguished, and to me utterly silly, class as the artist wife of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn.” Raymond Chandler to James Sandoe, 7 December 1950, Letters, 246.