The Simple Art of Murder
Raymond Chandler’s 1944 essay in The Atlantic Magazine, The Simple Art of Murder, is a great touchstone for anyone writing genre fiction.
Chandler was incredibly influential. He was one of the founders of the ‘hardboiled’ school of writers, who were extraordinarily innovative at the time, and his writing has had a profound impact on literature worldwide. I’ve detected his influence on writers from all over, including China, Japan, Iceland, the UK and, of course, the US.
I go back to Chandler again and again, but not just because of his successes. He has an inspiring story for anyone starting a writing career later in life.
Chandler was an oil company executive, and a sometime poet, but he was fired from his job in 1932, at the age of 44. He’d been reading a lot of crime writing in pulp fiction magazines, and thought he’d give it a try himself. (As an aside, I like this story because it reminds me of Lee Child, who was fired from his Granada Television director job at the age of 40, and decided he’d give crime writing a go instead.)
Anyway, Chandler’s first attempt at the genre was published in a pulp fiction magazine called Black Mask. Herbert Ruhm, in The Hard-boiled Detective: Stories from “Black Mask” Magazine, 1920–1951, wrote that “Chandler, who worked slowly and painstakingly, revising again and again, had taken five months to write the story. Erle Stanley Gardner could turn out a pulp story in three or four days—and turned out an estimated one thousand.”
A year or so later, Chandler produced a novella, which he sold for $180 (about $4250 today). It took him seven years to get a full novel published.
The Big Sleep, featuring Philip Marlowe, came out in 1939. Frank MacShane, in his book, The Life of Raymond Chandler, writes that Chandler wrote The Big Sleep by “cannibalizing” stories that he had already published in Black Mask and reworking them.
All of these little stories resonate with me. The late start to writing; Chandler’s attention to detail in his study of the art; his willingness to take five months to write a single story, to get it right – the principle of edit, then re-edit and edit again, per George Saunders; the toiling in the pulp fiction wilderness that he had to do to achieve success; his willingness to use previous material to create his first novel, and the idea that everything we create, regardless of how dispensable it might seem at the time, has lasting value. All great lessons.
Five years and three more novels later, Chandler wrote his essay for The Atlantic Monthly. And
The Simple Art of Murder is still relevant for anyone writing crime fiction – or any genre of fiction – today.
Here are a few of my favorite lines:
There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that.
On Dashiel Hammett…
He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before…
...he made the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.
On the detective story…
... an effect of movement, intrigue, cross purposes and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. The rest is spillikins in the parlour.
On humor in crime fiction…
It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.
On the character of the true detective…
…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. 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.