Sunday, September 14, 2008

Raymond Chandler's Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story: The Fate of the Artist

[Continuing my application of Raymond Chandler's "Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story" to comic book mysteries. I reprint Chandler's notes in full because he says what he means better than I can. Some of his notes aren't completely relevant, but I'm not going to pick and choose, because I think the whole thing is worth reading. New posts on random Sundays.]

Sorry for the break from this series. It happened because of this post, actually. A few weeks ago, after my post on Watchmen, I decided to do my next one on Eddie Campbell's The Fate of the Artist, which I hadn't read since I first bought it in the fall of 2006. I vaguely remembered that it was a mystery story, of sorts, with the artist (Eddie Campbell) missing and a detective hired by his family to find him. Sounds simple enough and perfect for this series, right? Well, have you read The Fate of the Artist? It's much, much, much more than what I just described. Yes, that plot is a superficial element of the book, but it goes beyond that to examine various types of art, its role, its effect, and does so through a variety of means including biography, traditional comic book storytelling, comic strips, prose, and a bunch of other things I'm forgetting. To focus upon the mystery element seemed to be missing the point.

But, then I thought, "Ah, what the hell? Who cares?" Why not focus on the mystery element and read the entire book as told from the perspective of the detective. Anything that isn't his prose is either his imagining of the event or documents he turned up in his research. It's not necessarily the best way to read the book, but I think it's a valid reading. At the very least, maybe one of you will pick the book up as a result.

Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story (Revised April 18, 1948)

1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the denouement; it must consist of the plausible actions of plausible people in plausible circumstances, it being remembered that plausibility is largely a matter of style. This requirement rules out most trick endings and a great many "closed circle" stories in which the least likely character is forcibly made over into the criminal, without convincing anybody. It also rules out such elaborate mises-en-scene as Christie's Murder in a Calais Coach, where the whole setup for the crime requires such a fluky set of happenings that it could never seem real.

Michael Evans killed the artist because Campbell he was always stealing Evans's ideas, wanted to (and did) do the typefacing of this book himself, and was always basing characters who met horrible ends on Evans. Evans put th artist in two bags and filed them at the local library under 741.5, the number for graphic novels in the Dewet decimal system. Of course, the artist isn't really dead since he's writing and drawing the book--so is Eddie Campbell really the murderer of Eddie Campbell with the credit going to Evans because it makes for a good joke? I certainly find this denouement funny. Is any of it plausible? No.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection. No fantastic poisons or improper effects from poison such as death from nonfatal doses, etc. No use of silencers on revolvers (they won't work) or snakes climbing bellropes ("The Speckled Band"). Such things at once destroy the foundation of the story. If the detective is a trained policeman, he must act like one, and have the mental and physical equipment that go with the job. If he is a private investigator or amateur, he must at least know enough about police methods not to make an ass of himself. When a policeman is made out to be a fool, as he always was on the Sherlock Holmes stories, this not only depreciates the accomplishment of the detective but it makes the reader doubt the author's knowledge of his own field. Conan Doyle and Poe were primitives in this art and stand in relation to the best modern writers as Giotto does to da Vinci. They did things which are no longer permissible and exposed ignorances that are no longer tolerated. Also, police art, itself, was rudimentary in their time. "The Purloined Letter" would not fool a modern cop for four minutes. Conan Doyle showed no knowledge whatever of the organization of Scotland Yard's men. Christie commits the same stupidities in our time, but that doesn't make them right. Contrast Austin Freeman, who wrote a story about a forged fingerprint ten years before police method realized such things could be done.

The private detective's methods are sound. Since there's no evidence that the artist has been murdered, just that he's disappeared, he interviews family, friends and experts regarding the artist's obsessions, as well as goes through the artist's files thoroughly. It's this knowledge that allows him to discover Evans as the murderer when the body is found. He says to Evans, "You have the motive, Evans: revenge. And you're the only one in the picture who knows the Dewey system."

3. It must be honest with the reader. This is always said, but the implications are not realized. Important facts not only must not be concealed, they must not be distorted by false emphasis. Unimportant facts must not be projected in such a way as to make them portentous. (This creation of red herrings and false menace out of trick camera work and mood shots if the typical Hollywood mystery picture cheat.) Inferences from the facts are the detective's stock in trade; but he should disclose enough to keep the reader's mind working. It is arguable, although not certain, that inferences arising from special knowledge (e.g., Dr. Thorndyke) are a bit of a cheat, because the basic theory of all good mystery writing is that at some stage not too late in the story the reader did have the materials to solve the problem. If specal scientific knowledge was necessary to interpret the facts, the reader did not have the solution unless he had the special knowledge. It may have been Austin Freeman's feeling about this that led him to the invention of the inverted detective story, in which the reader knows the solution from the beginning and takes his pleasure from watching the detective trace it out a step at a time.

Is Evans mentioned before the revelation that he's the killer? We get all sorts of other pieces of information regarding the artist's life, but is Evans mentioned? Not in the text proper, but on that page near the beginning with the copyrights and such [Edit: This is the indicia, a word that totally escaped me at the time of writing]. There's a thanks to "Michael Evans Designs." Is that enough? Ah, probably not. But then again, up until the page where the body is discovered, we operate under the suspicion that the artist has just fucked off somewhere. [Edit: As the artist himself points out in the comments, I completely missed an explicit reference to Evans in the text and a few implicit ones. The explicit one is a stupid oversight on my part as, in the denouement, Evans references the artist using him as the basis for a character that we see earlier in the book--and, in that section, there's explicit mention of Evans playing said character. How I missed it, I don't know. The implied references make sense for me since I'm not always the most visually inclined (making me the ideal person to discuss comics, of course), but, still, I should have got. So, there are references to Evans previously in the text and having Evans play a character who eats poisonous mushrooms and dies does add to his motive for killing the artist.]

4. It must be realistic as to character, setting, and atmosphere. It must be about real people in the real world. Very few mystery writers have any talent for character work, but that doesn't mean it is not necessary. It makes the difference between the story you reread and remember and the one you skim through and almost instantly forget. Those like Valentine Williams who say the problem overrides everything are merely trying to cover up their own inability to create character.

Well... it's about the real world sometimes... with actors playing the parts of real people... and past historical figures. The scenes with the detective explicitly are realistic, but everything else... Well, it's about an artist--why expect realism? The characters are somewhat realistic. The artist is a little over-the-top, but still believable, if only because we've all read stories about artists being eccentric like this. Is the real Eddie Campbell really like this? I dunno, I've never met the man.

5. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element; i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

Yeah, I would say this is the one piece of Chandler's criteria that Campbell nails without question.

6. To achieve this it must have some form of suspense, even if only intellectual. This does not mean menace and especially it does not mean that the detective must be menaced by grave personal danger. This last is a trend and like all trends will exhaust itself by overimitation. Nor need the reader be kept hanging on the edge of his chair. The overplotted story can be dull too; too much shock may result in numbness to shock. But there must be conflict, physical, ethical or emotional, and there must be some element of danger in the broadest sense of the word.

I don't believe there is suspense. The family of the artist don't seem to even care THAT much that the artist is gone. They obviously want him back, but most of what they tell the detective is how fucking crazy the guy was with his weird obsessions. There's little suspense here.

7. It must have color, lift, and a reasonable amount of dash. It takes an awful lot of technical adroitness to compensate for a dull style, although it has been done, especially in England.

Okay, Campbell does this very well, too.

8. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes. (This is possibly the most often violated of all the rules). The ideal denouement is one in which everything is revealed in a flash of action. This is rare because ideas that good are always rare. The explanation need not be very short (except on the screen), and often it cannot be short; but it must be interesting in itself, it must be something the reader is anxious to hear, and not a new story with a new set of characters, dragged in to justify an overcomplicated plot. Above all the explanation must not be merely a long-winded assembling of minute circumstances which no ordinary reader could possibly be expected to remember. To make the solution dependent on this is a kind of unfairness, since here again the reader did not have the solution within his grasp, in any practical sense. To expect him to remember a thousand trivialities and from them to select that three that are decisive is as unfair as to expect him to have a profound knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy, or the mating habits of the Patagonian anteater.

The body is found, the detective goes to Evans, all is revealed... ta da! It's very simple--to the point of absurdity, but still simple nonetheless.

9. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader. This opens up a very difficult question. Some of the best detective stories ever written (those of Austin Freeman, for example) seldom baffle an intelligent reader to the end. But the reader does not guess the complete solution and could not himself have made a logical demonstration of it. Since readers are of many minds, some will guess a cleverly hidden murder and some will be fooled by the most transparent plot. (Could the "Red-Headed League" ever really fool a modern reader?) It is not necessary or even possible to fool to the hilt the real aficionado of mystery fiction. A mystery story that consistently did that and was honest would be unintelligible to the average fan; he simply would not know what the story was all about. But there must be some important elements of the story that elude the most penetrating reader.

I didn't see Evans coming, but who would? Well, the detective did... But, anyone else who got to that point in the book and said, "Oh, Evans did it!"... you're a genius and should be solving crimes for a living.

10. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed. This is the least often emphasized element of a good mystery, but it is one of the important elements of all fiction. It is not enough merely to fool or elude or sidestep the reader; you must make him feel that he ought not to have been fooled and that the fooling was honorable.

I don't think it seem inevitable, but I can't think of a better reason someone might have for killing the artist. Within the context of this world, it makes sense and does fit with what we've read to that point.

11. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance. An atmosphere of terror destroys logical thinking; if the story is about the intricate psychological pressures that lead apparently ordinary people to commit murder, it cannot then switch to the cool analysis of the police investigator. The detective cannot be hero and menace at the same time; the murderer cannot be a tormented victim of circumstance and also a heavy.

It tries to do everything, but that's the point: to do everything. And it does it well.

12. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law. Contrary to popular (and Johnston Office) belief, this requirement has nothing much to do with morality. It is a part of the logic of detection. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.



1. The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing. It would be nice to have Dashiell Hammett and Austin Freeman in the same book, but it just isn't possible. Hammett couldn't have the plodding patience and Freeman couldn't have the verve for narrative. They don't go together. Even a fair compromise such as Dorothy Sayers is less satisfying than the two types taken separately.

This barely tries to be a detective story and, as such, succeeds at what it tries to do, which is barely be a detective story.

2. The most effective way to conceal a simple mystery is behind another mystery. This is litrary legerdemain. You do not fool the reader by hiding clues or faking character [ala] Christie but by making him solve the wrong problem.

I think the mystery in finding out why the artist acts like he does is the primary mystery as it begins as an effort to solve the initial one--but then overtakes it quickly as the detective (and reader) tries to solve the mystery of the artist, forgetting about the mystery of the artist's whereabouts.

3. It has been said that "nobody cares about the corpse." This is bunk. It is throwing away a valuable element. It is like saying the murder of your aunt means no more to you than the murder of an unknown man in an unknown part of a city you never visited.

We care about the artist. He's an interesting and engaging character. His eccentricities draw us in. Is there an emotional attachment? I'm not too sure about that. It's more of an intellectual attachment. We care about the artist as a character study, of someone to observe and figure out. Which makes his murder a blow, but also not that bad. We still have his work and the anecdotes of those who knew him--which has been our primary means of learning about the artist. Of course, all of this is provided for us by the artist, so...

4. Flip dialogue is not wit.

There's lot of wit here--and often it's mocked as lame and flip.

5. A mystery serial does not make a good mystery novel. The "curtains" depend for their effect on your not having the next chapter to read at once. In book form these curtains give the effect of a false suspense and tend to be merely irritating. The magazines have begun to find that out.

This is not a serial story.

6. Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery story because it creates a type of suspense that is antagonistic and not complementary to the detective's struggle to solve the problem. The kind of love interest that works is the one that complicates the problem by adding to the detective's troubles but which at the same time you instinctively feel will not survive the story. A really good detective never gets married. He would lose his detachment, and this detachment is part of his charm.

The detective has no love interest and barely a personality.

7. The fact that love interest is played up in the big magazines and on the screen doesn't make it artistic. Women are supposed to be the target of magazine fiction and movies. The magazines are not interested in mystery writing as an art. They are not interested in any kind of writing as an art.


8. The hero of the mystery story is the detective. Everything hangs on his personality. If he hasn't one, you have very little. And you have very few really good mystery stories. Naturally.

The focus of this story is the artist, not the detective, which is why it's not much of a mystery, but is still a great read. It's barely a mystery story (as I've said), partly because of the lack of emphasis on the detective. He's more of a guide through the world of the artist than anything else.

9. The criminal cannot be the detective. This is an old rule and has once in a while been violated successfully, but it is sound as it ever was. For this reason: the detective by tradition and definition is the seeker of truth. He can't be that if he already knows the truth. There is an implied guarantee to the reader that the detective is on the level.

The criminal is the former typesetter.

10. The same remark applies to the story where the first-person narrator is the criminal. I should personally have to qualify this by saying that for me the first-person narration can always be accused of subtle dishonesty because of its appearance of candor and its ability to suppress the detective's ratiocination while giving a clear account of his words and acts. Which opens up the much larger question of what honesty really is in this context; is it not a matter of degree rather an absolute? I think it is and always will be. Regardless of the candor of the first-person narrative there comes a time when the detective has made up his mind and yet does not communicate this to the reader. He holds some of his thinking for the denouement or explanation. He tells the facts but not the reaction in his mind to those facts. Is this a permissible convention of deceit? It must be; otherwise the detective telling his own story could not have solved the problem in advance of the technical denouement. Once in a lifetime a story such as The Big Sleep holds almost nothing back; the denouement is an action which the reader meets as soon as the detective. The theorizing from that action follows immediately. There is only a momentary concealment of the fact that Marlowe loaded the gun with blanks when he gave it to Carmen down by the oil sump. But even this is tipped off to the reader when he says, "If she missed the can, which she was certain to do, she would probably hit the wheel. That would stop a small slug completely. However she wasn't going to hit even that." He doesn't say why, but the action follows so quickly that you don't feel any real concealment.

The narrator here is the detective--as well as various other people when telling stories about the artist. Does it all add up to the artist as the narrator since he wrote the book? I don't know. The first-person narration we get is very basic and dialogue heavy. More often than not, narration focuses on the artist and describing his actions. The detective holds a lot back, but that's because we don't get much insight into his thought process. Whenever he shows up, he's interviewing someone for the case--we never get him contemplating the case.

11. The murderer must not be a loony. The murderer is not a murderer unless he commits murder in the legal sense.

Evans's reason for killing the artist is kind of insane, but is he insane? Is the artist insane?

12. There is, as has been said, no real possibility of absolute perfection [in writing a mystery story]. Why? For two main reasons, of which has been stated aboved in Addenda Note 1. The second is the attitude of the reader himself. Readers are of too many kinds and too many levels of culture. The puzzle addict, for instance, regards the story as a contest of wits between himself and the writer; if he guesses the solution, he has won, even though he could not document his guess or justify it by solid reasoning. There is something of this competitive spirit in all readers, but the reader in whom it predominates sees no value beyond the game of guessing the solution. There is the reader, again, whose whole interest is in sensation, sadism, cruelty, blood, and the element of death. Again there is some in all of us, but the reader in whom it predominates will care nothing for the so-called deductive story, however meticulous. A third class of reader is the worrier-about-the-characters; this reader doesn't care so much about the solution; what really gets her upset is the chance that the silly little heroine will get her neck twisted on the spiral staircase. Fourth, and most important, there is the intellectual literate reader who reads mysteries because they are almost the only kind of fiction that does not get too big for its boots. This reader savors style, characterization, plot twists, all the virtuosities of the writing much more than he bothers about the solution. You cannot satisfy all these readers completely. To do so involves contradictory elements. I, in the role of reader, almost never try to guess the solution to a mystery. I simply don't regard the contest between the writer and myself as important. To be frank I regard it as the amusement of an inferior type of mind.

This book is all for the fourth type of reader. The other types aren't even a consideration, really. It's all about style and the way in which the story is constructed, as well as the odd little tangents (including the wonderful comic strips provided). It's not much of a coherant narrative, but does work as a whole in its own odd way.

13. As has been suggested above, all fiction depends on some form of suspense. But the study of the mechanics of that extreme type called menace reveals the curious psychological duality of the mind of a reader or audience which makes it possible on the one hand to be terrified about what is hiding behind the door and at the same time to know that the heroine or leading lady is not going to be murdered once she is established as the heroine or leading lady. If the character played by Claudette Colbert is in awful danger, we also know absolutely that Miss Colbert is not going to be hurt for the simple reason that she is Miss Colbert. How does the audience's mind get upset by menace in view of this clear knowledge? Of the many possible reasons I suggest two. The reaction to visual images and sounds, or their evocation in descriptive writing, is independent of reasonableness. The primitive element of fear is never far from the surface of our thoughts; anything that calls to it can defeat reason for the time being. Hence menace makes its appeal to a very ancient and very irrational emotion. Few men are beyond its influence. The other reason I suggest is that in any intense kind of literary or other projection the part is greater than the whole. The scene before the eyes dominates the thought of the audience; the normal individual makes no attempt to reconcile it with the pattern of the story. He is swayed by what is in the actual scene. When you have finished the book, it may, not necessarily will, fall into focus as a whole and be remembered by its merit so considered; but for the time of reading, the chapter is the dominating factor. The vision of the emotional imagination is very short but also very intense.

Not really a consideration, except that the technique here relies on the reader focuses on the information provided at the moments, allowing it to accumulate and then seeing how it all fits together. It's a very mish-mash, choppy, cut-up book and does rely on the reader heavily. But, at the same time, the pieces are all entertaining and offer something for the reader in and of themselves. I'm not sure how to accurately describe what Campbell does here, actually.

I'll be back with another mystery story next week, maybe.