instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 20, 2009

There is nothing else for it to be

Raymond Chandler's famous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder," may be best remembered for its concluding description of the hardboiled detective hero: "But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid, &c."

In an earlier passage, to show what he thought was wrong with the common or garden mystery novel, Chandler eviscerates The Red House Mystery, a 1922 detective novel by A. A. Milne that Alexander Woolcott called "one of the three best mystery stories of all time." (What's that, you say? You didn't know Mr. Pooh was also a renowned mystery novelist? Chandler: 1 Woolcott: 0)

In showing how this novel (and by extension, pretty much the whole mystery tradition it represents) is a failure -- without its readership or even the author necessarily realizing it -- Chandler writes:
Yet, however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be. 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. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce.
Chandler goes on to itemize seven "deadly things," each of which is enough to sink the story. The result is a logic problem without logic -- or possibly (I haven't read the book myself) a logic problem that is so simple to solve the author (and reader) has to pretend it's confounding until it's time to solve the case in the last chapter.

If we were to look with a similarly critical eye at our entertainments today, sixty-five years after Chandler's essay first appeared, I suspect we would find an awful lot of nothing at all -- over and above the junk that doesn't pretend to be anything but junk, I mean.