"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective 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. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness."
Thus Raymond Thornton Chandler described the ideal crime novel protagonist in his most famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1945.
Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888, but was raised largely in England and received a classical education at Dulwich College, London. He fought in World War One, came home to America, and settled in Los Angeles, which was to be the scene of practically all his fiction. He married a woman eighteen years his senior, and after having drunk himself out of a good job as the director of a oil company, he started writing detective fiction for pulp magazines like Mask and Black Cat Thus began the unlikely career of our greatest crime novelist. Or if not our greatest crime novelist, then certainly our most talented prose stylist to write in the crime fiction genre.
In a career that spanned almost thirty years, his output was limited to six novels and about two dozen stories. His first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), introduced the iconic Phillip Marlowe, who was to be his protagonist for the remainder of his literary career.
Marlowe, a former investigator for the L.A County District Attorney's office who was fired for insubordination, is a sardonic and somewhat bitter man with high ethical standards. Here, in a continuation of the essay cited above, Chandler describes him better than I possibly could:
"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."
Marlowe inspired a whole spate of imitations, none of whom have survived the test of time largely because, while their creators caught the sarcasm, they missed the depth of character and profound sense of decency that motivated Chandler's protagonist. These cynical, cardboard-like figures, more shadow than substance, were ably satirized by William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch with his hilarious Clem Snide, who, acting in a fashion characteristic of this lesser breed, described himself as a "private asshole."
Several of Chandler's novels have been made into films, some more than once. To my mind, the best of the lot is the 1946 version of The Big Sleep staring Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood, with Howard Hawks directing and the great Southern novelist William Faulkner as lead scriptwriter. This was Hawks first shot at film noir, and he stuck to the obvious and didn't try to get overly arty, an approach more directors might consider.
But Chandler was not the first crime novelist to write in the realistic vein. He highly valued Dashiell Hammett as the first major writer to break away from the English cozy sort of mystery as exemplified by Dorothy Sayers and A.A. Milne. Here what he said of that transition:
"Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.
"Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes."
Chandler was much valued as a stylist by Truman Capote, who did much to rekindle interest in his work for a whole new generation of readers back in the 1960s. The simple vividness of Chandler's prose is apparent in this selection below from his short story, "Red Wind" which was published in 1938:
"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."
Or his description of twentieth century America from "The Simple Art of Murder":
"The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule cities and almost rule nations, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge."
And from The Long Goodbye:
"When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is."
If you haven't read Chandler, you should. His books have never been out of print, and his stock continues to rise with literary critics. The full text of his essay on murder can be found here.
I will leave it to Chandler, speaking once again of the ideal crime novel protagonist, to close.
"If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in."