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."

Cameron's work pegs closer to the noirs, and have a strong tendency toward the literary. "A lot of genre fiction is oriented toward solving some problem presented in the story." While his characters do seek resolution, he says, "I have a realist approach to storytelling. Not all problems are neatly resolved. That's how life really is: sometimes you get answers and sometimes you don't."

Cameron echoes Chandler's observation of "a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities."

"Look at the way the world is," says Cameron. "We live in a world that's managed by a kind of large-scale organized crime. What is government but something that exploits one group—in a criminal way a lot of the time—for the benefit of another. We wrap our political eclecticism in a lot of fancy language and quote great philosophers and politicians of the past to justify ourselves, but in the end we live in a world in which most of us are being exploited by people who are more powerful and more nefarious than we are. And so crime fiction is ultimately a metaphor for the kind of life most of us live."

There is an intellectual rigor to Cameron's Portland, where his novels take place. "Capturing the character of setting is essential. You have to be as fair to the city as possible, but sometimes exaggerate a certain point to draw attention to it. Fiction is a kind of shorthand. Life is lived minute-by-minute but fiction often happens in a rush and you can spend a short amount of time covering a great deal of activity."

Much of that activity involves his protagonist, Skin Kadash, an ex-cop who wouldn't be out of place in the grimiest of station houses. "We've got this notion that there are the police and then there are the rest of us. But in fact, these are guys who are cleaning their basements. Their kids are getting in trouble at school. They've got problems with their spouses. So it's not them and us; it's us and those of us who happen to have a particular job."

The police and detective work found in Bill Cameron's novels have an integrity that comes with years of working in the genre. The prose is heightened by design to capture the flavor of the work without overwhelming the reader with tedium. "I do have cops who read my stuff. I've had cops read scenes and say: Yes, you got this exactly right, and another cop read the same scenes and say: No this is all wrong. Procedures vary from department to department, but like one cop said: Well, this isn't exactly the way we do it, but if you wrote it exactly the way we do it the book would be really boring."

"Boring" is a problem that plagued mystery novels from their inception, until men like Hammett and James Cain, and pioneering women like Leigh Brackett wrenched from the genre an obsession with trivialities. The British style gave way to a distinctly American tradition and vernacular, where hardened men pressed gats to foreheads with the intention of squirting metal. This didn't always produce the most enduring fiction, but it did produce an enduring style of prose. Raymond Chandler elevated the crime genre to high literature with The Long Goodbye, and authors like Bill Cameron carry on this tradition. And boldly forward march these authors. As Chandler himself said, with perhaps a bit too much humility, "a classic is a piece of writing which exhausts the possibilities of its form and can hardly be surpassed. No story or novel of mystery has done that yet. Few have come close. Which is one of the principal reasons why otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel."