Is It Better Not to Know Whodunnit? Mystery Classics at MCL

Before the advent of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, mystery novels were largely of the "locked room" varietyNote 1I am using “locked room mystery” loosely, here, as synecdoche for mysteries that are more plot- than character-driven, routinely featuring the use of contrived circumstances to make the mystery more puzzle than realistic crime scenario. In other words, the locked room in a “locked room” mystery is often merely metaphorical.  epitomized by certain Agatha Christie works: A dead body, obviously murdered, is found inside a room but all of the apertures of ingress/egress are locked from the inside! How could this possibly be? It can't be, but yet … it is! O, help us with your brilliantly deductive mind(s), Hercule Poirot and/or Miss Marple and/or some other derivative equivalent of those two Christie stalwarts!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
In a typical Christie mystery, pretty much all narrative energy is geared toward setting up the central puzzle; these mysteries are relentlessly plot-oriented; the characters (even the "brilliant" protagonists) are two-dimensional at best; and everything is focused on The Big Reveal at the end, when the brilliant Poirot, e.g., having sifted through the available clues and discarded the red herrings, assembles the other characters and tells them (and the reader) who committed the dastardly deed, how, and whyNote 2 This is a ruthlessly and unforgivably reductivist description of a "typical" Agatha Christie mystery, for which I apologize. There is much to admire in Christie’s works and other works of this kind, many of which are still read today, with good reason. I myself enjoy them immensely. But I am not concerned herein with praising (or even doing justice to) mysteries of this type — I am concerned with setting up the contrast between those works and the works of Raymond Chandler. Make no mistake: I freely admit there is brilliance in Christie’s writing; it is just brilliance of a type markedly different from Chandler’s..

Raymond Chandler could be pretty scathing in his assessment of this type of mystery/detective novel – probably because he was at pains to define his own writing style in opposition to it. In his 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder”, Chandler thus critiques a “locked room” mystery by A.A. MilneNote 3 Yes, the very same A.A. Milne who wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I suggest you avert your eyes and turn back now if you suspect you won’t be able to abide the specter of Christopher Robin’s creator’s being thoroughly (albeit metaphorically) jacked up.  titled The Red House Mystery, “’one of the three best mystery stories of all time’”:
It concerns Mark Ablett’s impersonation of his brother Robert, as a hoax on his friends. Mark […] has a secretary who encourages him and abets him in this impersonation, because the secretary is going to murder him, if he pulls it off. Nobody around the Red House has ever seen Robert, fifteen years absent in Australia, known to them by repute as a no-good. A letter from Robert is talked about, but never shown. It announces his arrival, and Mark hints it will not be a pleasant occasion. One afternoon, then, the supposed Robert arrives, identifies himself to a couple of servants, is shown into the study, and Mark (according to testimony at the inquest) goes in after him. Robert is then found dead on the floor with a bullet hole in his face, and of course Mark has vanished into thin air. Arrive the police, suspect Mark must be the murderer, remove the debris and proceed with the investigation, and in due course, with the inquest.
Milne is aware of one very difficult hurdle and tries as well as he can to get over it. Since the secretary is going to murder Mark once he has established himself as Robert, the impersonation has to continue on and fool the police. Since, also, everybody around the Red House knows Mark intimately, disguise is necessary. This is achieved by shaving off Mark’s beard, roughening his hands ("not the hands of a manicured gentlemen"—testimony) and the use of a gruff voice and rough manner. But this is not enough. The cops are going to have the body and the clothes on it and whatever is in the pockets. Therefore none of this must suggest Mark. Milne therefore works like a switch engine to put over the motivation that Mark is such a thoroughly conceited performer that he dresses the part down to the socks and underwear (from all of which the secretary has removed the maker’s labels), like a ham blacking himself all over to play Othello. If the reader will buy this (and the sales record shows he must have) Milne figures he is solid. Yet, however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be. If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce. If the impersonation is impossible once the reader is told the conditions it must fulfill, then the whole thing is a fraud. [... ]. Here is what this author ignores …
Chandler, in similar mocking tone, then launches into seven paragraphs’ worth of specific objections to the plot of this novel, over and above the general ones he lightly touches on above – objections that emphasize the absurdity of the scenario that would need to be accepted without question for the narrative to work. If these plot absurdities are questioned, by reader or story character, they would become too obvious to ignore and the whole house of cards would collapse.

And this is an example of one of the better constructed locked-room mystery plots. Chandler is even more acerbic when, a few paragraphs later, he quickly disposes of even “less plausible examples of the art than this”:
In Trent’s Last Case (often called "the perfect detective story") you have to accept the premise that a giant of international finance, whose lightest frown makes Wall Street quiver like a chihuahua, will plot his own death so as to hang his secretary, and that the secretary when pinched will maintain an aristocratic silence; the old Etonian in him maybe. I have known relatively few international financiers, but I rather think the author of this novel has (if possible) known fewer. There is one by Freeman Wills Crofts (the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy) wherein a murderer by the aid of makeup, split second timing, and some very sweet evasive action, impersonates the man he has just killed and thereby gets him alive and distant from the place of the crime. There is one of Dorothy Sayers’ in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business. And there is a scheme of Agatha Christie’s featuring M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenious Belgian who talks in a literal translation of school-boy French, wherein, by duly messing around with his "little gray cells," M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain through sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it.
[…]
[Writers of this type of mystery fiction think] a complicated murder scheme which baffles the lazy reader, who won’t be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details. The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Chandler’s writing style is, in many ways, a direct revolt against contrivances of this kinds. His fiction is not about coming up with a Rube Goldberg-esque murder plot, but rather letting the “plot” – which, in a Chandler mystery, can often seem more “accident” than “plot”– be driven by the caprice and illogic of his more true-to-life characters. Or as Chandler himself put it in a (semi-lucid) 1958 interview he gave about a year before his death: “It seems to me the real mystery is not who killed Sir John in his study, but what the situation really was, what the people were after, what sort of people they were.”

Thus, in The Big Sleep, Chandler's focus is almost the direct obverse of what you see in an Agatha Christie mystery. Philip Marlowe, Chandler's private eye protagonist, tells his own story in a first-person narrative, which establishes a level of interiority to The Big Sleep that is rare in the universe of an Agatha Christie mysteryNote 4 Rare but not unknown. Christie does use a first-person narrator on occasion, most famously in her early mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but she employs the first-person point-of-view there for a very different purpose. In Ackroyd, the device itself serves almost as a red herring because Christie knows that no one would suspect (Spoiler Alert!) the narrator of the story of being the perpetrator of the crime.. And the crimes that Marlowe investigates are the hasty, messy, fatuous, illogical, passionate actions of distinctly human characters, not genre-conventionalNote 5 Not yet, anyway. But a lot of these character types would become genre conventions because of Chandler’s influence on the mystery writers who came after him. pawns — which, perversely, makes those crimes even more difficult to figure out and disentangle from each other since, in a Chandler novel, you are not dealing with one criminal with one easily comprehensible motive (or set of motives); you are, instead, plunked down in a world where guilt is relative, and nearly everybody shares in it to one extent or another; so the question, for Marlowe, is not "Who is guilty?" but rather "Given that everyone is complicit to one extent or another, who should or shouldn’t get hurt? Which questions are better left unanswered? And, moreover, if the wrong person is at risk of being hurt by the ‘truth’, might it be better if the full truth never comes out?”

Even when the crimes are solved, they still don't necessarily make a whole lot of sense, either on a plot level or an existential levelNote 6 There is at least one left-over body in The Big Sleep, that of a character whose death is never completely explained. In 1946, when Howard Hawks was filming the movie version of the novel, he cabled Chandler asking him to clarify the issue, but Chandler himself could not account for this particular corpse. This would be a fatal flaw in a Christie novel, which are all about whodunnit and accounting for every important plot element, even if the explanation strains credulity. But it is barely noticeable in a Chandler novel and seems, almost, to enhance the air of existential mystery to it ... although that, admittedly, may be taking it a bit too far.; and so Marlowe sees it as his job to impart meaning, of a sort, in a world that lacks the too-tidy explicability of an Agatha Christie novel, a world in which murders are not brain-teasers to be solved but rather the messy, confusing, dumbfounding consequences of the accidental collision of disordered lives and ad-hoc, irrational motives.

In The Big Sleep, Marlowe is hired to get to the bottom of a blackmail scheme, but along the way encounters a second mystery about a missing person. Out of a combination of curiosity and a sense of obligation to General Sternwood – the old man who hires him and to whom Marlowe takes a shine – he continues to pull at this second thread, even after he solves the first mystery and his job is technically over. And he does solve the second mystery, too, but concludes that he should not reveal the truth that he has figured out — that it would be in some sense immoral to reveal just whodunnit to his client, a dying old man, because the solution to the second crime would fill the old man’s few remaining days with torment:
What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Rusty Regan [the missing man who, Marlowe discovers, was murdered for no good reason by the old man’s unstable younger daughter] was. But the old man didn't have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. His heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. His thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while he too, like Rusty Regan, would be sleeping the big sleep.
At the end of an Agatha Christie mystery, a quotidian order is restored: The murderer is revealed and justice, in the narrow sense of “criminal justice”, is served – because that is the kind of orderly world that Christie’s characters inhabit. It is, ultimately, a comforting world with a more-or-less straightforward, universally-agreed-upon moral code governing it. Marlowe, on the other hand, inhabits a very different world. A world where cops can be as corrupt as crooks, innocence is for sale to the highest bidder and sinners and saints can be hard to tell apart even when you squint, it is a place whose “mean streets” are in need of “redemption”, Chandler understands, but that redemption requires a hero of a very different kind – a man who fully understands the moral ambiguity of the universe he inhabits:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. 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, or he would not be a detective at all. 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. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
In the character of Philip Marlowe, Chandler has created a hero who meets that standard.

FOOTNOTES

Note 1 I am using “locked room mystery” loosely, here, as synecdoche for mysteries that are more plot- than character-driven, routinely featuring the use of contrived circumstances to make the mystery more puzzle than realistic crime scenario. In other words, the locked room in a “locked room” mystery is often merely metaphorical.

Note 2 This is a ruthlessly and unforgivably reductionist description of a "typical" Agatha Christie mystery, for which I apologize. There is much to admire in Christie’s works and other works of this kind, many of which are still read today, with good reason; I myself enjoy them immensely. But I am not concerned, above, with praising (or even doing justice to) mysteries of this type — I am concerned with setting up the contrast between those works and the works of Raymond Chandler. Make no mistake: I freely admit there is brilliance in Christie’s writing; it is just brilliance of a type markedly different from Chandler’s.

Note 3 Yes, the very same A.A. Milne who wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I suggest you avert your eyes and turn back now if you suspect you won’t be able to abide the specter of Christopher Robin’s creator’s being thoroughly (albeit metaphorically) jacked up.

Note 4 Rare but not unknown. Christie does use a first-person narrator on occasion, most famously in her early mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but she employs the first-person point-of-view there for a very different purpose. In Ackroyd, the device itself serves almost as a red herring because Christie knows that no one would suspect (Spoiler Alert!) the narrator of the story of being the perpetrator of the crime.

Note 5 Not yet, anyway. But a lot of these character types would become genre conventions because of Chandler’s influence on the mystery writers who came after him.

Note 6 There is at least one left-over body in The Big Sleep, that of a character whose death is never completely explained. In 1946, when Howard Hawks was filming the movie version of the novel, he cabled Chandler asking him to clarify the issue, but Chandler himself could not account for this particular corpse. This would be a fatal flaw in a Christie novel, which are all about whodunnit and accounting for every important plot element, even if the explanation strains credulity. But it is barely noticeable in a Chandler novel and seems, almost, to enhance the air of existential mystery to it ... although that, admittedly, may be taking it a bit too far.


Selected Raymond Chandler Works

The Big Sleep; & Farewell, My Lovely

Raymond Chandler: Collected Stories

The Lady in the Lake; The Little Sister; The Long Goodbye; Playback

“Simple Art of Murder” – An online version of Chandler’s influential essay.

Other Works

The Big Sleep (DVD) – The 1946 movie adaptation that (necessarily) deviates quite a bit from the novel, it stars Bogart and Bacall and was directed by Howard Hawks from a screenplay written by William Faulkner, so it comes with quite the pedigree. To say it is well-worth a viewing is to understate the case significantly.

Christie, Agatha. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Criminal (podcast): Episode 13: The Big Sleep – A very interesting podcast describing how two fans of Chandler’s writing managed to reunite the author with the woman he loved decades after both of them had died.

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