Before I could read—when I first understood that someone, a writer, had chosen the words which, as my mother read them, put pictures in my head—I wanted to write. Making pictures out of words seemed a magical enterprise and, above all things, I aspired to join the company of magicians. But a magician of what sort?
It has been said of the mystery writer Raymond Chandler that his downbeat fictional universe was the byproduct of disappointed expectations. His English public-school education had prepared him for a world that was orderly, generous, and fair. The world he subsequently entered, though not without these qualities, was more accurately characterized by their opposites.
I think that disillusionment informs the work of many crime writers. The murder or disappearance that kicks off a mystery story poses a problem to be solved. At the same time, and in a larger sense, it signifies the sort of society in which such a crime is possible, even probable. The mystery story’s resourceful hero will solve the crime, but the hero’s efforts, except in a brief and transitory way, will do little to redeem the larger society. The hero knows as much and yet, even in the face of such knowledge, persists.
My temperament and taste draw me to these stories. The best of them, like Chandler’s, use arresting dialog, evocative figurative language, precisely rendered details, and wry humor to paint vivid lasting pictures, models to emulate.