What’s the secret to writing good mysteries?
October 15, 2018
Pay attention to the advice of Raymond Chandler, who believed that when writing, quality was non-negotiable.
Ever want to become a mystery writer?
Or maybe you already write mysteries, and you want to write them better.
If so, pay attention to the words of Raymond Chandler.
He was a writer of pulp fiction back in the 1930s and ’40s.
He wrote literary fiction.
Raymond Chandler offered these thoughts to mystery writers in a 1950 essay, and his words still ring true today.
“The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge …
“In everything that can be called art, there is 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 words, 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. If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”
Chandler’s character, Philip Marlow, and his novels became major hits on the silver screen, but he always believed, “If my books had been any worse, I should not have been invited to Hollywood, and if they had been any better, I should not have come.”
Raymond Chandler proved, more than anyone, that literature can be found in any genre, even in detective stories where the hero says, “I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.”
My hero always carries a gun in Secrets of the Dead, a historical thriller. Please click HERE to find the novel on Amazon.