Thursday, December 28, 2006

Raymond Chandler Rules!

Am I the only one who doesn’t remember seeing Raymond Chandler’s “Ten Commandments for the Detective Novel” before?

I came across this list while surfing through The Thrilling Detective Web Site earlier today. Apparently, these “commandments” were published previously in The Book of Literary Lists: A Collection of Annotated Lists of Fact, Statistics, and Anecdotes Concerning Books (1985), edited by Nicholas Parsons. While Chandler’s prescriptions are quite different from S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” the two make good companions. When it comes to detective fiction, Chandler asserts,
It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
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.
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.
It must be honest with the reader.
I disagree only with the imperative that detective fiction “punish the criminal in one way or another.” There have been plenty of good stories in which some ambiguity regarding the criminal’s fate remains after the last page is turned. Life is terribly messy, leaving loose ends all along the way. Shouldn’t modern crime fiction be allowed to be just as messy?

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While we’re on the subject of readers responding to this genre, I forgot to make note of a recently conducted academic study showing that “people with low self-esteem don’t seem to like it much when a story ends with a twist. In a whodunit, they like the ‘who’ to be the person they suspected all along.” Would it be going too far for bookstores to establish separate mystery sections for readers enjoying high self-esteem and others suffering from low self-esteem? Probably so. It would be equally ridiculous for authors to be inhibited by such studies. No novel is--or should be--perfect for everybody.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. (REVISION, 11/21/14 - It is a much higher number. In my initial reading I was in a super noisy Starbucks on 39th and 8th and apparently this affected my concentration.) I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.