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:
- “Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”
- “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.