A Sense of Character

One of my favourite writers of all time is Raymond Chandler. He was writing first-person hard-boiled detective fiction back in the 1940s and 50s, and led the way for any number of writers to follow in his footsteps. He also wrote a fabulous essay on detective stories in 1950, titled The SImple Art of Murder. (You can read the whole text here if you’re interested.)

I love this essay, not only for some of the individual lines, such as: Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse. But also because Chandler dealt with the precept that a detective story must be realistic, or it means nothing, but can’t be too realistic, or no one but a psychopath would want to read or write it.

One of my favourite parts of the essay is Chandler’s description of what the hero, the detective, in such fiction should be. Although I don’t write detective fiction, hard-boiled or otherwise, every book has some element of mystery wrapped up in the pages. If it didn’t, what would be the point in reading it? What would there be to discover?

My own hero is very much a modern model of Chandler’s detective, and I have the following quote stuck on the wall behind my computer so that I can refer back to it whenever I find myself wondering: what would <character> do in this situation? I hope you enjoy.

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

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1 Comment

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One response to “A Sense of Character

  1. Interesting. I’ve read this piece by Chandler before, but that was before I started writing mystery stories myself. My detective doesn’t really match up with his description (she’s not a man, for starters), but she does share some characteristics. Honor, yes, and not taking insolence.

    In pretty much everything else, not so much, but she’s not from the noir tradition.

    (I’m pretty sure she has never “spoiled a virgin.” 🙂 )

    And I agree that all novels are, to some extent, mysteries. Good post.

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