The Case for Crime Fiction

More than 70 years after Raymond Chandler defended the genre in The Atlantic, the debate about its status as art continues


Dover/Vintage/Tyrus Books

The integrity of crime fiction begins at the police station. The station house tells the reader everything he or she needs to know about the crime novel as art, and about law enforcement as entertainment.

Police stations are dirty. Not morally, though such a deficiency is not always entirely alien. They are dirty in a very real, very physical sense. Tables, chairs, desks, pens—in a police station, everything has a certain squalid grit to it. You can feel it between your teeth. Even when a station house is new, when coats of paint have yet to dry on cinderblock walls, and floors are freshly tiled and sealed and mopped, there's a honeymoon period of a day or so before the building ages a decade. It's almost as though crime manifests as grime on the wall. This is because police stations aren't where a day's work is conducted. It's where the work ends. Those so unfortunate to cross the threshold had too much too drink or too many pills. Threw a few punches or lost a few teeth. Definitely sweat, possibly ran, and if so, probably found asphalt or curb. The business of crime does not lend itself to clean hands, or manicured nails.

Television gets it all wrong. There, every office is dark and moody, with a barometer lamp at an odd angle and a flat-panel computer monitor projecting WordPerfect blue. Shadows dance across faces lit with absurd dedication or sinister undertones. On television, every police station is furnished by an IKEA 50 years in the future.

Real police stations know only two states of lighting: pitch darkness or Miniluv bright. Supply sergeants seem to have heard only of one bulb: the florescent tube. The effect is hypnotic. There are clocks, but there is no such thing as time. There is only increased fatigue with the occasional spike of strong coffee. Station houses reek inexplicably of engine grease, and bathrooms more likely than not have bars of Lava on washbasins.

In 1944, Raymond Chandler wrote an essay for The Atlantic entitled "The Simple Art of Murder." It was a critical evaluation of the detective story as literature. Of Dashiell Hammett, he wrote, "He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before." Most famously, perhaps, he wrote that Hammett "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish." The essay is known for its dismemberment of Dorothy Sayers, and for its methodical deconstruction of The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne. Chandler's conclusion: the art of crime fiction requires emotional and intellectual honesty and integrity.

It requires the dirty police station.

The debate sparked by Chandler's essay has not been resolved. According to Bill Cameron, author of the critically acclaimed County Line and one of Portland's most celebrated novelists, "A lot of people in the mystery community are constantly wrestling with what our craft means within a larger literary landscape." The continuum of the genre, he says, travels linearly from the "traditionals" by Sayers and Agatha Christie, to "cozy mysteries" by such contemporary novelists as Barbara Colley. "The definition, they say, of a cozy is one where somebody gets killed but nobody gets hurt."

On the far end of the spectrum are the noirs—the hard-boiled novels where, Chandler wrote, "far too many people got killed," and their passing is "celebrated with a rather too loving attention to detail."

Presented by

David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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