Sunday, August 23, 2009

Another thought on authorial musings on detectives

This is, of course, the last paragraphs of Chandler's essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." I had hoped that getting stuff down here about detectives and detecting in the last post would free me of them. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened yet. A thought struck me so strongly that I had to return and deal with Chandler's essay one more time.

"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'm 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 this man's 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. If there were enough like him the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."


Chandler is fairly specific about the detective who walks down the mean streets of LA. or Chicago or New York or Boston or Philadelphia: he is an honorable man, a proud man, a poor man, a common man, a decent man, an honest man who speaks the truth.

Actually this man sounded more familiar the more I thought about it. I believe I've encountered him somewhere else. Along with those paved urban streets, could he also have walked down the dusty unpaved streets of a small town out west?

Gary Cooper's Marshall Will Kane in High Noon for example.

Alan Ladd as Shane?

Richard Boone as Paladin in Have Gun--Will Travel.

or John Wayne

or Jimmy Stewart

or Clint Eastwood

or James Arness as Marshall Matt Dillon in that quintessential TV Western--Gunsmoke.

What do you think? Is Chandler's description limited to the detective or is he somehow a basic element of American mythology--the loner who comes in when legitimate authority is unable to handle the situation, deals with it in his own simple, straightforward way, and then rides off and is never seen again, until he is needed to set things straight once more.

Any comments?


  1. I really am only an occasional reader of mysteries, but I do have a question. Do you feel these theories also apply to female detectives, or are they different from the men in their actions, motives, etc.?

  2. Cheryl,

    Good question. Most of the comments, I think, refer to that specific detective, be it male or female. The one exception might be Chandler's depiction of the detective. It was written years ago when female PIs were rare. Most of the females who solved crimes back then were what I call "talented amateurs," with no official standing.

    Today, of course, it's different. One of my favorite authors is Ingrid Black whose series features Saxon (no first name so far), an ex-FBI profiler who moved to Dublin and now functions as an occasional PI and also consultant to the Dublin police (her lover is a high-ranking female police officer, which helps). Now, I'm sure Black had comments about Saxon as a detective, but nothing stands out for me.

    I haven't read any of the stories featuring female PIs located here in the US, because they are advertised as being as tough and violent as their male counterparts. Since I avoid their tough, violent male counterparts, I also avoid them.

    The police procedural which is my favorite type of mystery does now have an increasing number of female police officers. Those seem to be quite similar to their male partners--problems with maintaining a family, dedication to the job. In addition, the female police officer frequently has to fight prejudice on the job.

    Have you seen any of the _Prime Suspect_ TV shows, featuring Helen Mirren as a high ranking police officer with Scotland Yard? It's a good show and probably fairly representative of the way female police officers are depicted today.

  3. Fred,

    No, I haven't watched Prime Suspect. I'll have to give it a try. I don't like the tough and violent PI either, nor do I like the serial killer books that seem to be so popular. I think these have put me off of reading mysteries in general. Hopefully I'll find mysteries that are appealing to me from the suggestions on your blog.

  4. Unfortunately, the serial killer is big today.

    I suspect in a few years, they won't be that popular. Even in my favorite authors, I find a serial killer or two, and that includes the historical mysteries also. I don't mind them as long as they don't get too graphic in the descriptions and as long as the writer does something different in the next novel.

    However, your best would be mysteries written prior to the 70s, I suspect, and the historical mysteries.

    You were asking about female detectives. Have you read any of Agatha Christie's "Miss Marple" mysteries. She's one of my favorite talented amateurs.

    Early 20th century writers:
    Agatha Christie
    Dorothy Sayers
    Raymond Chandler
    Dashiell Hammett (body count gets a bit high at times)
    Margery Allingham

    For a modern detective, try anything by P. D. James. Her detective is a Scotland Yard officer who investigates crimes with a variety of motives, including a serial killer or two also.

    WJ Burley
    Tana French
    Ingrid Black
    Andreas Camilleri
    Batya Gur

    Some Historicals

    CJ Sansom (England during King Henry's reign),

    Bernard Knight (England during the reign of
    Richard the Lionheated)

    and Stephen Saylor (Rome, beginning at 80 B.C. and now at 45? B.C.),

    Charles Todd, England, immeditely following WWI

    All four have a variety of motives and frequently involve historical events and political intrigue.


  5. Arrghhh. That should have been Richard the Lionhearted.

    Another early 20th century writer is the New Zealand author, Ngaio Marsh, who set most of her Inspector Alleyn mysteries in England, though. Marsh, Christie, Allingham, and Sayers are considered the Queens of Crime during the decades between WWI and WII.

  6. Fred,

    Thank you so much for these book suggestions! I have heard of some of these authors, but didn't know if they were worth reading. ( I've been burnt so many times before.) I've never heard of Allingham as a Queen of Crime. What type of mystery does she write?

  7. Her detective is Albert Campion, the "talented amateur" type, probably closest to Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. Some critics even suggest a slightly satirical note here.

    BBC has dramatized a number of her books, featuring Peter Davison (the fifth Doctor Who, also the lead in _The Last Detective series, and a vet in _All Creatures....) as Campion.

    He's sort of an adventurer, perhaps occasionally on the dark side a bit, but we only get clues to this. His butler/manservant, Magersfontein Lugg (about as thuggish a thug as I've ever seen on TV and almost incomprehensible to me), is played by Brian Glover.

    In the first novel featuring Campion, _The Crime at Black Dudley_ aka The Black Dudley Murder_, he seems really to be a sinister character. In subsequent novels, his knowledge of the underworld and his contacts there seem to suggest that he has strayed at some point across the line.

    In addition, there are hints about his parentage which are never really spelled out, but there is some suggestion that it might lead through the back door into the Palace itself.

    What's that euphemism--a natural son.

    Pure fun

  8. May I throw a comment in here? Don't overlook Allingham's TIGER IN THE SMOKE, one of her best Campion mysteries.

  9. R. T.,

    Fear Not. I'm working my way through the Campion mysteries. I wish some publisher would reprint the series again, as the only copies around are found in used book stores and are getting worn and frail.

  10. Fred,

    I am very curious to find out what you thought of "In the Woods", by Tana French. ( I assume you read it, since she's one of the authors you recommended.) I just finished reading it. What did you think of the characters, especially the narrator Rob? Did he seem real, from a man's perspective? I thought he didn't, but I'm not around Irish men in their early thirties. I'd love to hear your opinion.

  11. Cheryl,

    Yes, I have read Tana French's _In the Woods_ and enjoyed it. I thought the portrayal of Rob was realistic, even though I also am not much around Irish males in their thirties.

    I do think French overdid it a bit, though. She didn't need to show him so often, and it took away from the main story, assuming the main story is the murder investigation and not about Rob. Several members of the book discussion group also commented that French's portrayal of Rob was a bit much.

    We follow Rob as he slowly disintegrates as the investigation continues, and part of the problem that readers may have with him is that we never know exactly why he is falling apart. It clearly has to do with that tragic incident from the past when his two friends disappeared and he was found in shock on the same hill where this murder was committed.

    Does he know something which he has consciously or unconsciously blocked out?

    What part, if any, did he play in the disappearance of his two friends?

    Just what happened that afternoon, and where are his friends?

    Are they still alive?

    Whose blood was that that soaked his socks inside his shoes? That his socks were bloodier than his shoes suggests that he had taken his shoes off at some point.

    I have also read her second novel, _Likeness_, which features Cassie Maddox as the lead investigator. She was Rob's partner in _In The Woods_. I would recommend that one too.