Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

The Simple Art Of Murder – Raymond Chandler

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 19, 2011

Books inevitably lead to more books and other reading material. At least that has been my experience over the last few years. I was led to Susan Sontag‘s classic “Illness As A Metaphor” while reading Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s “The Emperor Of All Maladies“; to Zora Neale Hurston‘s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” while reading Zadie Smith‘s “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays“, to Gustave Flaubert‘s “Sentimental Education” while reading Pankaj Mishra‘s “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond“. Three is a statistical sample. The real population has been fairly large and a recent addition to this growing population has been Raymond Chandler‘s essay “The Simple Art Of Murder” which I came to know of while reading Maugham‘s “The Vagrant Mood

The essay is a defense of the genre of detective fiction by Chandler who was an acknowledged master and who was nettled and exasperated by the criticisms of various brows (high, medium and low) who populated the world of literary criticism of his time. The outcome is a comprehensive survey of the genre, the key elements that are integral to it and strengths and failures of other notable writers who were Chandler’s co-practitioners. The essay is also a wonderful illustration of what a dispassionate analysis ought to be. Writers like Conan Doyle, A.A.Milne, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers get an earful, while Dashiell Hammett is isolated for praise.

It is a wonderfully engaging essay without being pedantic and sparkles with many inherent merits. However, the one that grabbed my attention are the insights into the elements of the craft which I represent verbatim

On the place of detective fiction in general literature:

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. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. 

On the preferred societal context as a setting

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, 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 practicing; 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.

On the protagonist in a detective novel

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But 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. 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. 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. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.


The reading of this essay is a motivation enough: let me now dust the covers of Chandler’s omnibus which has been lying on my book shelves for a while now and divert some of my hard earned money to buy a couple of Hammett’s. I am all set to enter the world of the murder, murdered, motives, mysteries, gangsters, tricksters, blondes, sleuths, blood, gore and the last page denouements……

2 Responses to “The Simple Art Of Murder – Raymond Chandler”

  1. Ravi said

    Subu and I were reading your blog today.. We have realized that we need dictionary with us to understand:).. good blog!

    • Vish Mangalapalli said

      Thanks for the feedback. Yes good writing is not about big words. It is about conveying your thoughts in simple words. Will make an attempt


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