12.27.2016

down these mean streets: raymond chandler's "the simple art of murder"

Netflix has added many older movies to its library, including several classics and modern classics. Among them I noticed "Mean Streets," the 1973 film that put both Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro on the map. I always thought Scorsese took the film's name from Piri Thomas' autobiography, Down These Mean Streets. Thomas' work is a landmark of urban and prison literature, and was highly influential. What I didn't know was that both Thomas and Scorsese borrowed their titles from a common source: an essay by Raymond Chandler, published in 1950, called "The Simple Art of Murder".

The essay is a gem. Chandler analyzes and critiques the murder mystery novel -- its formula, its artifice, its unreality. He refutes the idea that the murder mystery or detective novel cannot also be well crafted piece of art -- and he goes one step further, dismissing the false division between "quality" literature and "escapist" fiction. I loved this part, and agree with it entirely.
In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently -- one can never be quite sure -- is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.
Chandler then goes on to explain what he thinks Sayers was really poking at, which leads him to extol one detective writer above all: Dashiell Hammett.

It's a brilliant essay, so beautifully crafted. It shares a certain voice with the George Orwell essays that I love so much -- authoritative, but generous and warm; erudite but easy to follow, with just a hint of wry humour. Reading this essay reminded me that I know Chandler's work only from the film adaptations of his novels; I've never read any of his books. Sadly, the same is true about Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, although I love both film noir and hard-boiled detective films and series. Time to remedy that. I'm going to read at least a couple of books by each.

The penultimate paragraph of "The Simple Art of Murder" brings us the mean streets of both titles, and a soaring ode to the hard-boiled detective himself.
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, 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. I do not care much about his private life; 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 honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. 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 will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

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.
A Farewell to Piri Thomas, One-time Criminal Who Became A Youth and Peace Advocate, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (2011)

Roger Ebert on Scorsese's "Mean Streets" (2003)

Writers in Hollywood: Raymond Chandler, The Atlantic (1945)


2 comments:

johngoldfine said...

Fine as Chandler is, Cain's virtuoso prose and essential nastiness (in a good way) make him my favorite.

laura k said...

I just saw this today! It must have been one of the lost comments.

I am LOVING Chandler.