Magazine article The Spectator

Murder Most Serious

Magazine article The Spectator

Murder Most Serious

Article excerpt

Raymond Chandler praised Dashiell Hammett for having given murder back to the sort of people who commit it. Given that he himself followed in Hammett's footsteps, this was an understandable remark, aimed at what might already have been called the classic English detective novel.

'Can't read Christie, ' he told someone who had sent him a questionnaire. This wasn't quite true.

In one letter he analyses, intelligently and judiciously, Christie's Ten Little Niggers; elsewhere, in an essay, 'Casual Notes on the Mystery Novel', he wrote that he was 'quite unmoved to indignation by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd's violation of the rule that "the suppression of facts by the narrator . . . is a flagrant dishonesty" because the dishonesty is rather cleverly arranged, ' and in any case 'the whole arrangement of the story and of its dramatis personae makes it clear that the narrator is the only possible murderer.' He was also lavish in his praise of Michael Innes, most artificial of mystery writers. Nevertheless what he said about Hammett does reflect an impatience with the poison-in-the-fishpaste-sandwiches sort of crime novel that Agatha Christie wrote, and his conviction that the hard-boiled crime novel was more true to life and experience.

Judging by the sort of crime fiction now written, Chandler seems to have won the argument. With only a few exceptions -- Simon Brett and Andrew Taylor in his Lydmouth novels, for instance -- the crime novel in Britain as in the US generally owes more to Hammett and Chandler than to Christie. Murder is given back to the sort of people who commit it and the amateur detective has given way to the policeman. Even when he is a rebel and loner, like Ian Rankin's Rebus, who may be held to owe more to Chandler's Marlowe or even Hammett's Sam Spade than to your average DI, he still can't altogether escape the requirements of police procedure, and this gives the fiction a realistic feel.

Yet Chandler's suggestion that only certain types of people commit murder is surely nonsense. Simenon knew better. Time and again, and not only in the Maigret novels, he shows us men and women brought by force of circumstances, obsession (his great subject), and even tricks of fate to the point of killing, and, unlike both Chandler and Hammett, he never downplays the seriousness of the crime. He knows that to commit murder is to cross a bridge, carrying you away from the common run of humanity.

In the hard-boiled crime novel murder becomes almost incidental, its horror diminished so to the point where it scarcely seems to matter. …

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