Monday musings: Chandler had it easy

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By Scott Bury

This post is re-blogged from Scott Bury’s blog of February 15, 2016.

I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels in a probably vain attempt to capture the mood and inspiration to write my own crime fiction, and when I compare Chandler’s prose to 21st-century mystery, thriller and crime fiction, it seems that Chandler’s challenge was less than today’s writers’—or at least, very different.

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first full-length novel, and the first to feature the tough, cool and sarcastic private eye, Philip Marlowe. The book became a bestseller quickly, and I think part of the appeal was the titillation factor: Marlowe finds the daughter of his client drugged, sitting nude in front of a camera. In 1939, drugs and pornography were very racy stuff, stuff not talked about in polite society. So racy, in fact that in the movie version made in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, that the Carmen character was wearing a “Chinese dress.” There was no mention of pornography, and the homosexual relationship of two minor characters was completely left out.

In a time when people make their own sex videos and publish them on social media, naked pictures are no grounds for blackmail. Today, it’s almost impossible to shock or titillate an audience merely by hinting at a character’s homosexuality.

Shockers sell books

No, this is not a Nicholas Sparks “white people almost kissing” theme. This is as steamy as Hollywood got in 1946.

New writers who reach bestseller status often do so with a taboo subject. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo launched Steen Larson into international fame with its depiction of Nazis in modern society, child sexual abuse and a main character with Aspergers Syndrome. To Kill a Mockingbird wrote honestly about racism in the American South. The Virgin Suicides’ eponymous theme was something that no one wanted to talk about in the early 1990s. All these books were the first novels published by their respective authors.

The problem with shock as a literary device is it only works the first time. Writers of popular fiction have to keep upping the ante. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of writing a noir detective novel for the 21st century. Which means I would have to trawl the seedy underside of a big city and bring to light the dirtiest laundry of wealthy society, and the desperation of those clinging to the edge of their economic class.

But for shock value, it’s hard today to expose sins worse than what we read in the news: sexual abuse of children by clergy; self-proclaimed moral guardians having sex with strangers in public washrooms; institutional racism and sexism; wars being fought over made-up crimes. And of course, the biggest and most damaging sin of all: the manipulation of the economy to impoverish a once thriving middle class by transferring their wealth into fewer and fewer pockets.

How to shock?

I could probably dream up some horrible new crimes, something to surely shock or perhaps titillate an audience. Beyond the potential damage to my own psyche, I hesitate to inspire some twisted reader to emulate my fictional horrors.

And that brings up another question: should I write to shock? I write to tell stories, to present characters reacting to situations, not to horrify my readers.

Which means today’s noir writers are spending more psychic time in deeper, dirtier dungeons than ever before, writing about more damaging sins.

Raymond Chandler. Image courtesy Venture Galleries

Does the noir mystery translate to the 21stcentury? Sure. Plenty of writers have published these dark, moody mysteries with flawed characters who succumb to all sorts of temptations since 2000. But it seems to me that the crimes are grislier, the suckers more depressed, the gangsters more bloodthirsty and the femmes even more fatal.

I was right. Chandler had it easy.

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