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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