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How Raymond Chandler Took Down Sherlock Holmes

Between the two world wars, detective fiction supposedly went through a Golden Age. Coined by the literary critic Howard Haycraft in 1941’s Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, this era was dominated by a certain type of mystery: “cozy” novels with aristocratic manners and hard-to-believe plots. They were invariably British (or written by Anglophilic Americans) and typically featured eccentric sleuths modeled after Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The most famous examples include Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.

In the traditional Golden Age plot, a murder occurs — but not for any apparent reason beyond puzzle solving. After the discovery of the body (which is almost never found rotting), the private detective arrives on the scene, which is usually somewhere sensational, like a Georgian mansion or a yacht traveling the Nile. From here, suspects are questioned and clues examined. It’s an impersonal affair, almost like moving chess pieces or trying the Sunday crossword. By the end, the detective will assemble all of the concerned parties and explain to them how he or she solved the case with superhuman intelligence and the supernatural power of never being wrong. The criminal is then dramatically outed. Some culprits choose suicide, while some let the law run its course. This small world goes back to normal, people get married, and thus the novel ends.

This is textbook escapism. At the time, it was certainly judged that way and few outside of the lending library and Book of the Month Club took these novels seriously. The few who did either sought to bring further order, as in the case of Monsignor Ronald Knox, who created “The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction,” or actively tried to clutter up the all too tidy world of detective fiction.

Raymond Chandler, an American-born writer who had spent most of his young life in England with his Irish mother, was in the latter category. After being fired from his high-paying job at the Dabney Oil Syndicate due to problems stemming from alcoholism, Chandler took up writing at the age of 45 in 1933. Before writing, the author had lived a tough life, and as a result, his later detective novels, which feature the archetypal P.I. Philip Marlowe, inject a hard-boiled realism that cannot be found in other novels from that era.

Chandler — like his literary hero Dashiell Hammett, whom Chandler said “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley” — preached a cynical, urban and very American style of writing, turning the quaint detective novel into the crime novel. At the time, the Chandler-Hammett school of detective fiction was known as “hard-boiled” and stood in direct contrast to the British Golden Age.

“The Simple Art of Murder,” which was first published in The Atlantic in December 1944, is essentially Chandler laying bare the ethos behind hard-boiled detective fiction. In it, Chandler, who at times reads like a proponent of the realist (or naturalist) school, makes two foundational claims:

  1. “Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”
  2. “All reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce or The Diary of the Forgotten Man.”

From here, Chandler spends a significant portion of the essay savaging the British style of mystery writing. One novel in particular, A. A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, is reserved as a special case of foolhardy unreality.


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the notebook problem: you see a notebook. you want to buy the notebook. but you know you have like TEN OTHER NOTEBOOKS. most which are STILL EMPTY. you don’t need to notebook. you’re probably not gonna use the notebook anyway. what’s the point? DONT BUY THE NOTEBOOK. you buy the notebook.


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Reading in Public: Tales of Love and Literature, Pt. II

This piece is part of our “Reading in Public” series, a collection of first-person essays about love, literature and missed connections. Submit your own story by emailing the editor at

Let’s say his name was Joshua. That’s not true, but everything else here is. It’s true that we met because we knocked into each other on the stairs leading up to Emerson’s library, a meeting that is more from the world of romantic comedy than the actual world. It’s true that the collision made us both drop the books we were holding. It’s true that I was holding Pale Fire and that he was holding Infinite Jest, and it’s true that some of the first words we spoke to one another were, “That’s a really good book.”

That night, I sat on my suite’s dingy couch, eating Pizza Goldfish crackers and reading his book review blog in total and complete rapture. I was a sophomore in college, still deeply committed to the breed of crippling elitism specific to college sophomores. Less than two years earlier I had been in high school in South Florida, where the dating pool included a sea of guys who used “u” instead of “you” and had not yet managed to master the difference between “to” and “too.” But then there was this guy. And he had a book blog. And he had read Pale Fire. And he was reading Infinite Jest. I imagined us walking the streets of Cambridge, discussing David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, which I had read as a senior in high school (though, admittedly, with little to no understanding, a point that did not at all strike me as germane at the time).

Two days after our initial meeting, Joshua sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to go to a reading with him at the Harvard Bookstore that weekend. I typed out a message that I hoped would read at the delicate balance between smart and flirtatious, but not too eager. After I sent it, I spent the rest of the day imagining our whole narrative arc.

Here’s what I remember about that first date: We saw Nathan Englander read fromWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, and my nerves had me sweating so much that I had to keep rubbing my palms against my black tights; it was late February, and Boston had become a picturesque image of snow-covered benches, the sky a vibrant shade of blue. I do not remember what Nathan Englander talked about.

I remember that, when the reading finished, we went to a nearby bar that notoriously did not card and I felt more adult than I had ever before. It only took half a glass of the house white for me to confess to having noticed Joshua before our collision, reading alone in the window of our school’s cafe. I may or may not have giggled and made a remark about how he appeared to me as “interesting and smart.” Joshua admitted to having noticed me, too. He even mentioned the book I had been reading a few weeks back. I share this not to provide evidence that we were destined for each other, but to show how badly we wanted to be. What a good beginning our story had. What fascinating first few chapters these were.


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Reading in Public: Tales of Love and Literature, Pt. I

This piece is the first installment in our new series "Reading in Public," a collection of first-person essays about love, literature and missed connections. Submit your own story by emailing the editor at

If he gets off at 14th Street and transfers to the L, I’ll give him my number, I promised myself.

It was around 11 P.M. on a weeknight, and I was alone on the 1 train with the man of my dreams — well, at least some of my dreams. He wasn’t sporting the first flattering neck tattoo the world has ever seen, I wasn’t sure if he wanted between four and six children, and there was no helpful flashing sign letting me know that he was Jewish, but he did have some of the traits I stubbornly associate with my future soul mate: He was lanky, had on a moderately trendy pair of glasses and was wearing Keds. What really got me, though, was the book he was reading: The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. I don’t think I need to tell you it was a tattered, worn paperback.

Had I been familiar with Fanon’s work at the time, I would’ve dismissed my dream man with the same special eyeroll I reserve for men who read James Joyce in public. It’s not that I have a problem with literature that some would call pretentious; it’s more that you shouldn’t attempt to readFinnegan’s Wake while a baby is crying two seats away and some woman’s handbag is repeatedly slapping you in the face as you barrel towards 42nd Street. But I had never heard of The Wretched of the Earth before and began to associate the title with every single one of my favorite books: Fanon was probably the male Carson McCullers, I told myself as we passed 34th Street.

When the as-yet-unnamed twenty-something-year-old and I both got off to transfer to the L, I made sure I was on the same train car as my subway-crossed lover. As he slowly turned the pages of his paperback, taking moments-long breaks to look off pensively into the distance, I found a scrap piece of paper in my wallet and scribbled my number on it. As we sped further toward my stop, I decided that a 10-digit number alone wasn’t enough to awaken the fire within my almost-husband, so I wrote across the top of the note in ballpoint pen: “I want to hear about the book you’re reading.”

Asking which came first, the literary attraction or the physical attraction, is a classic chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. But I will say that, as I choked out “This is for you” and tossed the scrap of paper onto my confused co-traveller’s lap before running off like the wind, I really was wondering what The Wretched of the Earth was about, partially because I wanted to know if I should pick up a copy myself, but also because, to me, literary taste is an indication of what type of person someone is. My last boyfriend, for example, favored T. S. Eliot over all else and had never heard of humor essayist Sloane Crosley. (See why it didn’t work out?) Besides, as graphic T-shirts from the early 2000s love to inform us, reading is sexy. It wasn’t so much the way this somewhat sweaty guy clenched a paperback as it was the thought that he loved to read — and read the same kind of books I was interested in — that really turned me on.


A week later, I went to Joshua’s apartment, a studio in Boston’s Back Bay. He showed me his prized possession: a library organized by genre, then sub-genre, then alphabetically. He picked up a copy of The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace’s first novel, and asked if I had read it. I shook my head.

“Well, then, here. It’s my favorite.”

When we said our goodbyes, I walked back to my room and silently hoped that this would be my favorite book, that we would talk for hours about it.

I did not love The Broom of the System. I did not hate it either. In fact, I wishI had hated it. A response that strong would have given Joshua and I something to debate at least. Instead, I just felt … nothing. I dismiss the idea that, in order to be in love, two people have to love all the same things, but the idea that Joshua’s favorite book did absolutely nothing for me was unsettling.

KEEP READING:"Reading in Public: Tales of Love and Literature, Pt. II"

This was supposed to be our moment. I hadn’t even googled Fanon in anticipation of this very second, worrying that Wikipedia might dim David’s spotlight. He was going to tell me, in some subtly poetic sentence, about how much The Wretched of the Earthhad stirred his heart (and thereby stir my loins). He wrote, “It’s okay. I like it.”

I like it? I LIKE it? I like watching Netflix. I like the Trader Joe-brand beer and their $1 mac and cheese. I don’t like literature; I fall head over heels in love with it, and books had been my boyfriend far longer than some self-described white guy. It wasn’t until a year later, when a friend who was reading Fanon for a course informed his entire class of my past heartbreak and they all burst out laughing, that I realized it’s douchey to read The Wretched of the Earth in public. Even if I had known at that moment, I think I might have been able to let it slide had David said something other than “It’s okay.”

KEEP READING:"Reading in Public: Tales of Love and Literature, Pt. I"

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No One Needs to Apologize for (nor Destroy) Manic Pixie Dream Girls

Reading critic Nathan Rabin’s humblebrag confessional “I’m Sorry for Coining the Phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’” I couldn’t help but feel amused. I was familiar with the term as well as most of Rabin’s examples (Natalie Portman in Garden State, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, etc.) and had already seen the subject cleverly and concisely dissected by one of the very women Rabin called out. The one reference in Rabin’s essay that I was unfamiliar with was the John Green Tumblr post, in which the popular YA author wrote that his novel Paper Towns “is devoted IN ITS ENTIRETY to destroying the lie of the manic pixie dream girl.”

I was amused not only because the issues with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept have already been pointed out by a 19-year-old, but because, as a twenty-something who until very recently was reading YA novels of precisely the John Green variety, I don’t need anyone’s apologies.

In order to explain, let me go back to the very first Manic Pixie Dream Girl I fell in love with: Stargirl, from the novel of the same name by Jerry Spinelli. She pulls stunts that only a true Manic Pixie would, like adorning her middle school desk with freshly picked flowers and, you know, going by “Stargirl.” She dates the novel’s narrator, Leo, who’s emotionally raw and lonely following his family’s move to Arizona. Adorably odd girl saves sad leading male — typical Manic Pixie stuff, as Rabin would tell you. He and Green would argue that Stargirl doing cute shit, like riding around on a bicycle covered in sunflowers, and the novel’s epilogue featuring a much-older Leo reflecting on how Stargirl has changed his life with her courageously quirky ways are all reductive of actual women because these things imply a reality in which teenage girls serve only to cater to the fantasies of men in need of saviors.

The only problem is that this analysis, especially in regards to YA literature, is incredibly reductive of readers. That YA novels, like movies and television shows, scream for more well-rounded female characters is true, but as a female reader, I also don’t need Green’s Tumblr posts or supposedly redemptive new novels to finally convince me of my self-worth. As a female reader, you learn to read between the lines quite a bit when it comes to learning lessons from material written by men, and what I got out of Spinelli’s Stargirl wasn’t that my purpose in life was to bring flowers to class every day in order to score an emotionally scarred boyfriend. I was weird as a kid (like, really weird) and consistently felt like an outsider in my class of 20 kids at Jewish day school. When I read about characters like Stargirl or Alaska from Looking for Alaska or Sam from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I realized that, to some people out there, my thriftstore acid-wash skirt was actually cool. But I wasn’t just imagining dudes I would theoretically charm with my pre-worn denim; the fact that an author would choose to immortalize a character I so strongly identified with made me feel like, even if I didn’t have anyone besides my dad to bring with me to concerts, there had to be other people out there who liked what I did and I would eventually find them.


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South Florida Barber Shop Doubles as Library (Finally, Some Good News out of Florida)

When I tell people that I’m from South Florida, I’m usually met with some derivative of “Florida is so weird.” I don’t correct them, mostly because I’m not entirely sure they’re incorrect. Florida, with its seemingly endless unsettling news (sinkhole in Disney World, anyone?), is indeedweird, and South Florida is the ne plus ultra of the state’s eccentricity. But it’s also my native land, and though I can laugh at a good Florida joke, I have a deep affinity for my home state.

It’s this relationship with Florida, as well as my relationship with literature, that found me so moved by the story of a Palm Beach County barber shop going out of its way to promote reading. Reggie Ross, the owner of Royal Touch Barber Shop in Sunrise, Florida, offers his young visitors books to read while they wait and when they’re in the chair. There are no TVs or radios inside Royal Touch, but, instead, a small library of books that tackle topics ranging from college admission to African-American history.

“I’m very selective about the books here,” said Ross to the South Florida Times. “We emphasize culture and broadening their horizons — books that are going to help them get ahead in life.”


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