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Cool Murder

Raymond Chandler | The Art of Writing Murder

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The City not the city? Where’s the difference? Well, the City of London is that teeming financial square mile at the ancient heart of the capital, London’s version of Wall Street. Already by the time of the second world war it was a place devoted to red-blooded trading, where almost nobody actually lived. (And just as well. A third of it was destined to be bombed flat in a single night of the blitz.) For that reason, crime in the City was likely to be very highly specialized and definitely white-collar: the shamus has it that ordinarily you stood a better chance of getting shot at in a lighthouse. And then on Christmas Day, out of nowhere, City Police has a homicide on its hands. City Police? Yes indeed. In 1947 the City Corporation maintained a force of more than a thousand officers, accountable to itself alone, just as it had been for centuries. Meanwhile the jurisdiction of London’s Metropolitan Police - of any rank whatever - ended at the City’s boundaries. So, as Christmas turns to New Year and the killings keep coming, they’re treated as an entirely internal matter for the best-policed square mile on the planet. Except that a gumshoe took a call before dawn that Christmas morning, and lifted an eyebrow at a murder that didn't add up. The rest is pure Shamus Dust. By the way, walk the City’s streets nowadays and you’ll see that it's in part become residential again. As for the Corporation's long history of policing itself, its time was called in the 1970s.

As a teenager I’d read all of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe detective stories - not so long after they were written as I’d like to think - and they knocked my socks off.


He wrote about a Los Angeles of neon-lit boulevards, a sour, gritty downtown and gun-toting cops (a novelty to this young European) and made them exotic. But what really got under my skin was ...

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Shamus Dust tips its hat to the novels of Raymond Chandler in all sorts of ways. After all it’s a dark take on city crime, corruption and a series of murders set in 1947, when not only Chandler’s Philip Marlowe mysteries but the entirely new form of film noir were both hitting their stride. In short, I decided to tell the story with a cast and settings that mystery readers and filmgoers of the time would have recognized, complete with a private eye of my own. And that meant there were choices to be made.

The first decision was to make the shamus the first-person narrator. The Marlowe of the novels obviously comes to mind. As do two indelible voiceovers from film noir: Dick Powell - Marlowe again - in Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (1945) and Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey in Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). Each one voices an altogether different mood and tone. Both are terrific. A second decision, less straightforward because the story is rooted in London, was to make the shamus American. I get asked about that.

For me, there really wasn’t a choice. Set a story at the beginning of the Cold War, color it noir, then add in a private eye. So far so good. But having decided that, I simply couldn’t hear it being narrated by an Englishman of the time. His vocabulary, speech rhythms and cadences work against the spare form. His English manners play in the wrong key. And besides, it wasn’t a story I wanted told from the inside. From police to racketeers, from shell-shocked veteran to femme fatale, practically every character the shamus encounters is English, and I wanted them seen through the eyes and heard through the voice of someone on the outside, who would find them as strange and exotic then as we do now, from this distance in time. The American shamus answered the need. In postwar London his compatriots, both civilian and military, were already a part of the scenery. Some - Carole Landis, Richard Widmark, Orson Welles and others - had even started arriving in the capital to play the leads in British films noirs!

So what of the shamus and his own history? What brings him to London and how does that affect his narrative voice? Good question. In 1947 Newman is a man late in his thirties, raised in Washington State. At the crash of ’29 he’d taken a transfer to his company’s London office to stay in work, and by the time of the story he’s lived as long in England as in the United States. All of which complicates the voice. In London his accent still identifies him: an American acclimatized to dealing with the natives, high and low, but always the expatriate. Confronted by the City’s temporary medical examiner - similar age, from a well-connected family - he finds himself musing on the kind of English she’ll likely understand.

To get an idea of the effect a longstanding Atlantic crossing can have on the voice, there’s no need to look further than Raymond Chandler himself. Chicago born, educated in London, returned to America aged twenty-four, he later considered himself a lifelong exile from England. You hear that dislocation most clearly in Chandler’s own voice in his collected letters, but it’s also there in the Philip Marlowe novels. Myself, I always hear Marlowe as one shade out of kilter, sometimes more than a shade; a man in but not of the brash, new-industrial California of the late forties and fifties where he makes his living. Don’t mistake me. Marlowe’s is no standard-issue cold, hard edginess, of the kind forever available to writers of detective fiction. Not at all. What I hear in Chandler’s private eye is the warm-blooded, clear-eyed purpose of someone who's set aside his sense of belonging and accepts the loss. For my money, that assertive shrug in Marlowe’s voice could be Chandler’s great gift to mystery writing.

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Photo Credits:

Trafalgar Square 1947 | N.T. Stobbs

Hard Winter, London | Imperial War Museum, London

The City of London  | Imperial War Museum, London 

An American in London I The Big Lift 1950

A World Gone Sour | The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946

Hearing Voices | Wikimedia

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