Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Quote of the Day: Raymond Chandler

"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 with hand-wrought duelling 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. ... He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."
Raymond Chandler wrote that in an essay called "The Simple Art of Murder," published in the Atlantic Monthly in December 1944.

Chandler uses part of the essay to pick apart A.A. Milne's (of Pooh fame) novel The Red House Mystery from 1922. Chandler lists the author's oversights, pointing out for example that the local police in the book don't make the obvious connection between a missing man and an unidentified corpse.

But it's Chandler's his praise for fellow crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett and his defense of the genre that are best remembered. Chandler lashes out at Dorothy Sayers, who once wrote that detective fiction can never be great. Here's Chandler:
"In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: 'It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement.' And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a 'literature of escape' and not 'a literature of expression.' I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers."
Despite the gripping subject matter, "Some very dull books have been written about God," Chandler adds. He argues that it isn't the genre, but the writer:
"It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. ... Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds."
That last part bears repeating, because its application is universal: Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.

And that's where Chandler's interest in Hammett comes in. When writers write about real people, great things can happen. But "When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves." Hammett, Chandler said, took the keen observastions and literary skill found in writers like Dreiser, Lardner, and Sherwood Anderson, and "applied it to the detective story."

Ultimately, Chandler is remembered along with Hammett as one of the best mystery writers ever, and both have managed to transcend the genre.

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