Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel


Pro­mo por­trait pho­to of author Ray­mond Chan­dler, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ray­mond Chan­dler Denounces Strangers on a Train in Sharply-Word­ed Let­ter to Alfred Hitch­cock

Ray­mond Chan­dler & Ian Flem­ing in Con­ver­sa­tion (1958)

Watch Ray­mond Chandler’s Long-Unno­ticed Cameo in Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty

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.

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Comments (10)
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  • Sarah says:

    Dorothy Say­ers — with an s on the end.

    Or more com­mon­ly known as Dorothy L. Say­ers, which is the name that appears on her title pages.

  • Priscilla says:

    I don’t care what he says. I love Dorothy Say­ers, and Ray­mond Chan­dler!

  • Bob says:

    I’m remind­ed of a let­ter Ray­mond Chan­dler wrote to a woman ask­ing him to help her son become a suc­cess­ful writer. He wrote back, “Dear Mrs. Hogan, My expe­ri­ence with try­ing to help peo­ple to write has been lim­it­ed but extreme­ly inten­sive. I have done every­thing from giv­ing would-be writ­ers mon­ey to live on to plot­ting and re-writ­ing their sto­ries for them, and so far I have found it all to be a waste. The peo­ple whom God or nature intend­ed to be writ­ers find their own answers, and those who have to ask are impos­si­ble to help. They are mere­ly peo­ple who want to be writ­ers.”

  • Eric says:

    Chan­dler was a genius. Any writer, regard­less of genre, can learn a thing or two about the craft from him.

  • Lee Rowan says:

    #9 is vital. The dif­fer­ence between a good detec­tive sto­ry and real life is that in the sto­ry, the vil­lain does NOT get away with mur­der.

  • VLL says:

    Weird. I heard this rule set was first com­piled by the incom­pa­ra­ble Msgnr Knox.

    Dorothy Say­ers is NOT bor­ing. She’s just cater­ing to a dif­fer­ent audi­ence. And her shorts are hilar­i­ous.

  • Kevin Burton Smith says:

    Nice to see that at least THRILLING DETECTIVE got a link. We can argue about whether infor­ma­tion should be “free & open” (non-writ­ers and cheap­skates believe every­thing should be free) but giv­ing cred­it where cred­it is due should be oblig­a­tory.

    At least I not­ed where I swiped the list from. It’s from The Book of Lit­er­ary Lists: A Col­lec­tion of Anno­tat­ed Lists, Sta­tis­tics, and Anec­dotes Con­cern­ing Books, com­piled and edit­ed by Nicholas Par­sons (Lon­don: Sidg­wick & Jack­son, 1985). I know it’s from there, because that’s where I found it.

  • Kevin Burton Smith says:

    Oh, and I don’t care what her panties look like. Dorothy L. Say­ers is about as fun­ny as a cold sore on a stiff upper lip.

  • magnoliasouth says:

    There is a rea­son why no one real­ly liked him all that much. He was an arro­gant p***k some­times. Ask Bil­ly Wilder! Still, the man had tal­ent and so every­one put up with his inces­sant drink­ing, wom­an­iz­ing and com­plain­ing.

    In the end, I enjoy his work just as I do Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Say­ers. What Chan­dler could­n’t seem to under­stand at the time the dif­fer­ence between cozy mys­ter­ies and dark crimes. It’s too bad that these descrip­tions did­n’t make it back then. His rant would prob­a­bly have nev­er hap­pened.

  • Jam says:

    The fun­ny thing is that Ray­mond Chan­dler broke the rules all the time.
    I think every­thing he wrote had at least one sub­plot that did­n’t have a fin­ish, and had non­sen­si­cal sto­ry ele­ments that either could­n’t hap­pen, or could­n’t be explained. A per­son show­ing up in two sep­a­rate places at the same time, or know­ing some­thing they could­n’t know.
    But his style and mat­ter of fact expla­na­tions at the end of the nov­els just make you for­give those issues.
    But this post is so good, Chan­dler is my sec­ond favorite writer behind Mick­ey Spillane.

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