The title of this piece, without the qualifying negative adverbial up front, is the name of a famous essay, indeed a seminal one, by the late Raymond Chandler. The reasons for my doff of tribute to him will become apparent as you read.
The ‘classic’ English detective novel followed a set pattern; a formula that recurred in various forms of fancy dress in virtually every writer’s work in the first half of the 20th.century. To wit an upper class milieu, a country manor or stately home for a mise en scene, assorted houseguests belonging to the aforesaid upper crust, and a murder provided for their entertainment.
Enter the gentleman detective, the gifted amateur for whom the whole business is a neat problem in logic and deduction, who solves the mystery with the same insouciant panache as he would exhibit in playing a hand of bridge in his St.James or Mayfair club. The detective could be a titled lord, as in Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy L.Sayers, or he could be a Professor of Literature at Oxford as in the case of Gervase Fen of Edmund Crispin; he could even be a regular (but genteel) member of the Metropolitan Police, like Inspector (later Commissioner Sir John) Appleby of Michael Innes, or Roderick Alleyn of Ngaio Marsh. Only a minor variation on that theme was Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple. Depending upon the writers’ competence the plots succeeded variously as detective fiction but primarily as novels of manners.
It was all faintly unreal, with an air of amateur theatricals about it. Yet, funnily enough, one lapped it all up without once pausing to question its premises; we believed it was the way it was supposed to be because the dominant form decreed so.
It required Raymond Chandler to change all that. Chandler was an American, but before you turn up your nose let me tell you that he wasn’t your run-of-the-mill redneck: he went to school in England, being a contemporary of PG Wodehouse at Dulwich, and later studied on the Continent. He knew the English milieu intimately, and his academic baggage had impressive labels. Therefore, when he ripped apart (with brutal wit) the ‘English’ school of detective fiction in his now famous landmark essay The Simple Art of Murder the only thing that he could perhaps be accused of was an unrelenting uncharitableness. The essay was a prose masterpiece, and as a double critique, both of the detective novel and of fiction in general it was unique: it set the trend for all subsequent literary studies in crime fiction as an art form.
Taking Dashiell Hammett’s works as a starting point he argued for the infusion of realism into this literary form which necessarily dealt with violence – giving murder back to the streets, where it belonged, as he put it. And the dialectic concluded with the now memorable manifesto for his own detective:
But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man… He must be…a man of honour, 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… he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honour in one thing, he is that in all things… 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 is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man…. He talks as the man of his age talks…with rude wit…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… If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
Philip Marlowe was all of that, and more. And Chandler wrote himself into all the halls of fame.