Raymond Chandler – along with his hardboiled brethren like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain – sandblasted the detective novel of its decorousness and instilled it with a sweaty vitality. Chandler, through the eyes of his most famous character Philip Marlowe, navigated a thinly veiled Los Angeles through the desperation of those on the low end of society’s totem pole and through the greed and venality of those at the top.
Instead of creating self-contained locked room mysteries, Chandler created stories that looked outward, struggling to make sense of a morally ambiguous world. He dedicated his career to the genre, influencing generations of writers after him. His very name became synonymous with his terse, pungent style.
So it isn’t terribly surprising that Chandler had some very strong opinions about crime fiction. Below are his ten commandments for writing a detective novel:
1) It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
2) It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
3) It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
4) It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
5) It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
6) It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
7) The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
8) It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
9) It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
10) It must be honest with the reader.
These commandments are oblique jabs at the locked room whodunits popular during the Golden Age of the detective novel during the 1920s and 30s. Chandler delivers a much more pointed criticism of these works in his seminal essay about crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder.
After taking thoroughly apart the murder mystery The Red House by A. A. Milne (yes, the writer of Winnie the Pooh), Chandler rails against detective stories where the machinations of plot outstrip any semblance of reality. “If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about.”
He goes on to trash other British mystery writers like Agatha Christie and particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, who Chandler paints not only as a hypocritical snob but also as boring. “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers,” he quips.
Chandler then offers praise to his hardboiled colleague Dashiell Hammett who infuses his stories with a sense of realism. “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 was spare, frugal, hardboiled, 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.”
Whether conscious or not, this passage is a fair description of Chandler as well.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.