The legendary crime fiction writer, Raymond Chandler. wrote in his 1950 essay, The Simple Art of Murder: “Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.” For me, pulp fiction, detectives and authenticity go hand in hand. You may now breathe a sigh of relief now you know I am referring to detective or mystery fiction. Perhaps if you write in the cozy mystery genre, you might not wish to carry on reading. That’s fine as long as you understand that is why I do not read that genre. Most, if not all, is sheer poppycock. Each to his or her own, I say.
Chandler dismisses such fiction thus, “while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue.”
Owing to my love of authenticity, that’s why I prefer writers like Michael Connelly. He wasn’t a cop, but the next best thing. He was a crime beat reporter in Los Angeles for many years. He gets it. He knows how cops think, speak, and behave. He is merely one example.
The debate about the status of crime fiction as art continues many years after Chandler’s essay was first published in the Atlantic. David W Brown wrote:
“Boring” is a problem that plagued mystery novels from their inception, until men like Hammett and James Cain, and pioneering women like Leigh Brackett wrenched from the genre an obsession with trivialities. The British style gave way to a distinctly American tradition and vernacular, where hardened men pressed gats to foreheads with the intention of squirting metal. This didn’t always produce the most enduring fiction, but it did produce an enduring style of prose. Raymond Chandler elevated the crime genre to high literature with The Long Goodbye, and authors like Bill Cameron carry on this tradition. And boldly forward march these authors. As Chandler himself said, with perhaps a bit too much humility, “a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed. No story or novel of mystery has done that yet. Few have come close. Which is one of the principal reasons why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.”
Earlier in the same article, he writes:
The integrity of crime fiction begins at the police station. The station house tells the reader everything he or she needs to know about the crime novel as art, and about law enforcement as entertainment.
Police stations are dirty. Not morally, though such a deficiency is not always entirely alien. They are dirty in a very real, very physical sense. Tables, chairs, desks, pens—in a police station, everything has a certain squalid grit to it. You can feel it between your teeth. Even when a station house is new, when coats of paint have yet to dry on cinderblock walls, and floors are freshly tiled and sealed and mopped, there’s a honeymoon period of a day or so before the building ages a decade. It’s almost as though crime manifests as grime on the wall. This is because police stations aren’t where a day’s work is conducted. It’s where the work ends. Those so unfortunate to cross the threshold had too much too drink or too many pills. Threw a few punches or lost a few teeth. Definitely sweat, possibly ran, and if so, probably found asphalt or curb. The business of crime does not lend itself to clean hands, or manicured nails.
He is wrong! He misses the point entirely. Brown writes about the physical things, and even those, I don’t agree with. The police stations I knew, and there were a lot, were just like many other government offices: boring facsimiles of each other.
The “dirty” is nothing to do with the physical. It emanates from the nature of crime itself. Crime, especially serious crime, is violent, shocking, corrupting. It also corrupts the souls who are exposed to it for a living. It is depressing and that is why so many detectives hit the bottle and/or experience such a high rate of divorce.
Many such detectives in reality and in fiction are the “flawed heroes’ we expect them to be. It is their minds and souls that become tarnished, not their fingernails.
I recommend you read the Raymond Chandler essay in full. There are many pearls of wisdom. A revised version can be read here.
Pulp fiction detectives and authenticity
Chandler critiques the ‘English formula’ of mystery fiction, based on puzzle solving, and credits Dashiell Hammett with a more realistic tradition.
Hammett and Chandler started a distinctively American tradition in which the police were corrupt and the detective owed a lot to the gunslingers of pulp Westerns.
Chandler described the man who walks the mean streets who has been a staple of crime fiction ever since.
Crime fiction offers a way to explore a society through its flaws.
I highlighted “pulp Westerns” because much of this genre fiction is known as pulp fiction or pulp thrillers. I am actively seeking authors who might like to contribute to a collection of pulp-fiction short stories.