12.18.2013

Me and Raymond Chandler

I've never been a fan of mystery novels, so it's no surprise that I'd never read Raymond Chandler's 1944 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," an in-depth treatment of the genre published in Atlantic Monthly. If you've read a ton of books by Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, and Dashiell Hammett, you'll find plenty of ruminations here over their work.

But his reflections on motives for writing (or making art in general) and his observations about the world, and particularly America, seem to mirror my own thoughts on both subjects. Which is to say, the process of creation and observation doesn't vary much from discipline to discipline, and photographers can learn from anyone who makes anything, even dead writers of near-forgotten mysteries.

The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge. 

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. 

Good stuff about law and order and the absence of both. And suffice to say I'm no fan of that macho, hard-boiled style that Chandler and others invented, and was later taken up by far better writers, most recently James Lee Burke (whose mysteries I have read, if only because when he is in top form, JLB is one of the most lyrical and original of contemporary writers). 

But that bit about applying a tough mind and detached spirit to the observation of a cruel and corrupt world, in the interest of creating patterns, seems to me as fine a definition of art as any. And the "funny" subtleties of the way someone might be killed in a mystery novel - because certainly, someone must always die - are the same "funny" subleties I have often looked for in my photographs when I observe worlds much like the one Chandler describes in the first paragraph.  

You can read Chandler's entire essay here