June 6th, 2010

Raymond Chandler

Mystery Stories

Many people think that mystery stories are driven by plot and the belief that murder will out. A mystery prepares the reader for the revelation of the villain. This is the kind of story that requires “spoiler” warnings, something that I always take as a warning that the story may not be worth the trouble to read. In the preface to a collection of long short stories, Trouble Is My Business, Raymond Chandler said “The ideal mystery was one that you would read if the end was missing.” The corollary is that an ideal mystery is one that you would read even if you knew the end beforehand. After all, we all know that murder will out, so who cares about the details? The way the murder outs is what counts.


Chandler’s stories are about the detective not the plot. Chandler’s detective, Phillip Marlowe, is special. He owes the heroes of the cowboy westerns and the heroes of the romances of Chretien de Troyes and the Mabinogion. Marlow’s chowderhead is a big as Gawain’s, chasing off to establish honor in a corrupt world where the cops are on the take, the heroines cheat, and Marlowe’s best friend will always betray him in the end. Murder may out, but in the outing, it will drag down more than stands. Why read this dismal schmaltz? Is the attraction the hot pepper remarks?

Chandler said in the same preface “As to the emotional basis of the hard-boiled story, obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done– unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen.”


A structuralist analysis of the hard-boiled detective looks at the overall structure. A society is structured. Then something happens, like a murder, that throws the structure into chaos. The hard-boiled detective restores order, but in his restoration of order, he adds his own measure of disorder. His disorder carries the potential to transform the society to a higher order where the ideals of the detective prevail. Except the detective seldom prevails. The mean streets stay mean, and Marlowe settles back with another glass of whiskey and waits for the next phone call, a paladin or messiah, ready to transform the world, waiting for the next good chance.

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