Sunday, August 23, 2009

Some Authors' Musings on Detectives and Detecting

This post is Raymond Chandler's fault. It's not really a coherent commentary, but closer to an exorcism I would guess. I was reading an essay by Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," which I found interesting, even if I didn't agree 100% with him. But, it was the ending that started me off and eventually was responsible for this collection of quotes taken from a few mystery writers, one or two who may be considered Classic while others are too new to have reached that exalted level.

Chandler's essay started me thinking, especially about his thoughts on the detective and detecting. I noticed that some other writers had done the same, and I now began paying more attention to these little asides that now stood up and waved at me. Now that I have become aware of them, something must be done about them. So...

So, the ending of Chandler's essay:

"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."

Are Chandler's detectives like this--Philip Marlowe, for example. Does Chandler come close, or do you think he meant the above more as an ideal to strive for, rather than something that could be achieved?


After reading the above, another example immediately surfaced --Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and his attempt to explain to Brigid O'Shaughnessy just why he was going to turn her in:

"Listen. this isn't a damned bit of good. You'll never understand me, but I'll try once more and then we'll give it up. Listen. When a man's partner is killed he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. It's bad all around--bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I'm a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it's not the natural thing. The only way I could have let you go was by letting Gutman and Cairo and the kid go. That's--"

I wonder what Chandler would have thought of Sam Spade. Does Spade fit Chandler's description of what a detective, or at least his detective, must be like? Is Spade a lonely man, a proud man, an honorable man? What would Chandler have thought of Spade's affair with his partner's wife?


Hakan Nesser is one of the writers too young to be considered a classic, but he's won a number of awards for his detective novels in his native Sweden. This quote isn't so much about detectives but about the art of detecting. The novel's title is Borkmann's Point, and I misunderstood it to be a geographical location. It isn't. Borkmann was Chief Inspector Van Veteren's mentor when he first joined the Swedish police force. Borkmann's rule refers to a specific point in an investigation:

"In every investigation, [Borkmann] maintained, there comes a point beyond which we don't really need any more information. When we reach that point, we already know enough to solve the case by means of nothing more that some decent thinking. A good investigator should try to establish when that point has been reached, or rather, when it has been passed; in his memoirs, Borkmann went so far as to claim that it was precisely this ability, or the lack of it, which distinguishes a good detective from a bad one.

A bad one carries on unnecessarily."

Any thoughts? It's a rather large claim being made here. I know there have been times in the past when I was doing research for a paper, and at some point, I had to simply stop the search for more information and start to write. It was at that point that I felt I was losing track of my initial idea and was being buried under mountains of data. More often than not, I found I had too much data, and seldom did I have to do more research because I lacked information.


Thomas H. Cook's detective in Sacrificial Ground provides us with a different view of the detective--the angst-filled cry of a lonely man, tormented by what he has seen and now struggling to justify himself to himself. He is neither Philip Marlowe nor Sam Spade.

"He returned to the living room and once again sat down on the sofa. He felt the need to view his life as some kind of whole, as if it could be captured in a single tone or color. But nothing held firm. Nothing but his work, his pursuit--however blind and full of error--of something which could be called justice, or at least, retribution. People had to pay for what they died, and he was one of the ones who made them pay. It was the badge which gave him the right to do that, and he suddenly found ;that he wanted to cling to it with all his remaining strength. Nothing could bring back Sarah, or Angelica or Ollie Quinn, or any of the scores of others whose bodies lay torn and broken in his memory, but whose spirits still moved sleeplessly through him They were more real to him than all the living who crowded the streets and buses. They lived more fully in his mind, and their flesh was warmer and more tangible. It bled and bled, as if the one great heart of all the unjustly dead still beat on through the ages, their cries still ringing out through time, heard like a low moan in the ground or like a scream echoing above it."

He strikes me as being a very different sort of person. Is he too much involved with the victims to be able to step back and think rationally about the crime? Should his feelings help him or hinder him in bringing the killer to justice?


Here's another take on detectives and detecting--this time by W. J. Burley, author of a series of mysteries featuring Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, a representative of one of my favorite type of mysteries--the British police procedural. Wycliffe is on recuperative leave in a small seacoast town, in which a murder has taken place. He manages to stay clear of it for some time, but as in all novels with this premise, it isn't long before he gets involved. His reaction to his involvement, even though he's on medical leave?

"[Wycliffe] went to his room and replaced the photograph and the report in Gill's file. He would never have admitted it but for the first time since the start of his enforced holiday he was beginning to enjoy himself. He was indulging in the most delectable kind of pleasure which is both anticipatory and lightly spiced with guilt. Yesterday he had felt tantalisingly excluded from the community of the village, a spectator on the outside; now with this drab-looking file he was licensed to become a privileged interloper . Now, if he wanted to, he could probe into their lives; winkle out their secrets.

Often, at the start of a case, he would savour the prospect as one might turn the pages of a new autobiography or take a peep into a bundle of someone else's letters. The chance to live vicariously in other people's skins; for him, one of the attractions of the job. He knew it to be unworthy and salved his conscience with the reflection that he was rarely censorious, never malicious though always insatiably curious."

Burley's Wycliffe is a different sort of detective, one who in some ways resembles what others always assume police officers and PI's are--the snoop who gets a thrill out of looking through other's dirty laundry. I wonder what Chandler and Hammett and Nesser and Cook would think of him. Which detective of the four authors I just mentioned would most understand Wycliffe? Or would any?


One last one--this comes from John Maddox Roberts' series of Roman mysteries featuring Senator Decius Caecilius Metellus and is set approximately 50 b. c., give or take a few years. Caesar has not yet finally demonstrated that the days of the Republic of Rome are over.
At one point in the novel, SPQR III: The Sacrilege, Decius meditates on the art of detecting:

"There are stages in the investigation of a crime, conspiracy or other mystery that involves many people acting from many motives. At first, all is confusion. Then as you gather evidence, things get even more complicated and confusing, But eventually there comes a point when each new fact unearthed fits into place with a satisfying click and things become simpler instead of more complex. Things begin to make sense. I now felt that things had reached that state. It seemed to me that my guardian genius, my ferret-muse, hovered near and was aiding me to untie this knot of murder and intrigue.

Or perhaps it was just the wine."

In wine, there is truth, so perhaps it was just the wine.


Of course, these are only a few of the ways that writers have written about detectives and the art of detecting. But, these are the ones that have stayed with me for some time now. In spite of the variety of methods and attitudes of the detectives, some of which seem almost contradictory, they most always get their man or woman in the end. That must mean something, but I'm not sure what.


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful posting on detective fiction, one of my favorites genres; I will take some time to digest what you've so generously provided, and--when time permits in spite of the pressing commitments that come with the beginning of a new semester at the university--I'll comment further about some of the issues you've raised. BTW--Well done!

  2. I'm looking forward to reading your comments.

  3. You might try RAYMOND CHANDLER SPEAKING for comments in his letters on Spade etc. Good book!

    1. Gregory,

      OK, thanks for the tip