Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Raymond Chandler was one of the most well-known authors of hard-boiled detective fiction and one of the primary links between that genre of pulp fiction and “classic” film noir, owing to the facts that some of his work was adapted to the silver screen and that he worked for a time as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
His book The Simple Art of Murder is an interesting creature. The work takes its name from the first chapter, an essay that Chandler wrote in 1944 to muse on the detective story in its classic form (the essay can be read online here). Chandler trains his sights on the over-thought and often ridiculously convoluted plots of much detective fiction, and, in a style that is both incisive and funny, critiques it for its lack of realism, what he perceives as a reliance on contrivances, and a formulaic tendency, which takes precedence over the human qualities of murder. Instead, using his (near-)contemporary Dashiell Hammett as his prime example, Chandler champions realism, and more than that, character. The whodunnit is not as important as the people involved and the world in which they interact. Sleuthing is not as important as morals, finding out who created the corpse is not as important as finding out why or, in some cases, whether or not to protect or pursue someone involved. The essay, then, is part literary criticism and part (I guess you can call it) manifesto.
As if to prove Chandler’s point, the rest of his book contains reprints of eight of his own hard-boiled stories. For the reader interested in using the essay in scholarly work, this part of the book (which takes up the overwhelming majority of the volume) is a treat; for the reader who likes mysteries, this is the place to go. Not only does it provide examples of the genre, it provides engrossing reading and representative examples of the hard-boiled genre that Hollywood looked to many times when it made and released the films that have since come to be known collectively as film noir.
Personally, I like Chandler’s type of story – the one that he writes and the one that he writes about – but I am not as ready to condemn the formulaic. Formulaic is a pretty apt description of the Marvel Noir franchise, as it is for much of Marvel’s (and DC’s) output in general. (Although it cannot be stressed enough that the description of superhero comics as trashy shlock for kids and underdeveloped man-children is a tired caricature promoted by self-styled guardians of taste, who often make the distinction to show how much “better” supposedly “adult” comics are.) Being formulaic is not necessarily a bad thing, and both major superhero houses manage to regularly produce some pretty readable stuff that stays close to a formula that allows them continue from month to month until sales dip too low to continue, while still being fresh.
But with the Noir series, there really was no incentive to keep so close to the comfort zone, since it was supposed to be something new. Thus, formulaic here becomes (at least for me) a four-letter word. It applies perhaps particularly to the X Men stories, which are crafted around a too-cute central mystery that is deduced and manipulated by a figure who is fine-tuned for the purpose. So many of the Marvel Noir murders are committed, it seems, as in Chandler’s caricature of classic detective fiction, “just to provide a corpse,” although this does not apply across the board – in part because the franchise so often strays from emulating either classic detective fiction or the hard-boiled style.
Although it might seem a harsh verdict on the franchise, Chandler’s words are fitting in connection with Marvel’s experiment: “brutality is not strength, flipness is not wit, edge-of-the-seat writing can be as boring as flat writing; dalliance with promiscuous blondes can be very dull stuff when described by goaty young men with no other purpose in mind than describing dalliance with promiscuous blondes” (16). As I have suggested elsewhere, and as I will have one final occasion to revisit soon, Marvel Noir knows too well what it is trying to do when it looks to hard-boiled detectives and film noir; it tries to present plots and dialogue that fit a mold that has long since evolved into something else. Not only does this attempt to “connect” only rarely rise above the level of a “wink,” it even leads to a number of cringe-worthy instances of homophobic and misogynist dialogue and characterizations included for no apparent reason but to seem “authentically” noir.
Chandler’s essay has been read and reread by hundreds of scholars of hard-boiled detective fiction, film noir, and their offshoots over the decades since it first saw the light of day. It remains fresh and insightful, and I would recommend anybody with an interest in any of these to read it. (Remember, it’s only a click away.)