When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through a Door with a Gun in His Hand

Raymond Chandler? Apocryphal?

clinch05Dear Quote Investigator: The novelist Raymond Chandler was famous for his literary crime fiction. He once discussed the techniques he employed to craft his hardboiled fiction and supposedly offered advice similar to the following:

If your plot is flagging, have a man come in with a gun.
When stumped, have a man come through a door with a gun.

Did Chandler really give this counsel?

Quote Investigator: In April 1950 Raymond Chandler published an essay titled “The Simple Art of Murder” in a magazine called the “Saturday Review of Literature”, and he reflected on his background as an author in pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. The tales about police officers, journalists, and detectives sometimes lacked realism Chandler said because they occurred during a compressed time-frame and involved an artificially close-knit group of people. Here is an excerpt with boldface added: 1

This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published.

So Chandler did write a remark of this type, but he was not presenting it as advice. The weapon flaunting tactic was an occasional expedient he resorted to while writing for the pulps.

There is some confusion surrounding the citation for this statement because Chandler wrote another more widely known essay with the same title several years earlier. In December 1944 “The Atlantic Monthly” published “The Simple Art of Murder”; however, that piece did not contain the quotation. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The title “The Simple Art of Murder” was also used in 1950 for a collection containing short stories by Chandler plus a revised version of the essay from “The Atlantic”. The set of stories in later editions under this titled varied. The 1972 paperback edition of “The Simple Art of Murder” contained just four tales plus “The Atlantic” essay. 3 The quotation was absent.

In 1972 a paperback collection titled “Trouble Is My Business” by Raymond Chandler was released containing four stories and a version of the essay from the “Saturday Review of Literature”. Thus, this book included the quotation under examination. A short story within the collection was also titled “Trouble Is My Business”, and this was another source of confusion. 4

In 1975 the syndicated columnist George F. Will reviewed a nighttime television soap opera called “Beacon Hill”. He employed a close variant of the expression without quotation marks and credited Chandler: 5

Raymond Chandler once advised writers of detective stories: When stumped, have a man come through a door with a gun. “Beacon Hill” writers have a rule: When stumped, send a Lassiter to bed.

In 2003 a set of critical essays about author Norman Mailer was published, and one essay referred to the remark made by Chandler. The instance in the introduction to the collection “Trouble Is My Business” 1972 was cited: 6

The nature of this quest is sometimes obscured by the form’s relentless violence, which is associated with unvarnished melodrama. “When in doubt,” Chandler once advised the authors of tough-guy short stories, “have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” (Trouble Is My Business ix).

In conclusion, in 1950 Raymond Chandler did write about using an armed man to move a story forward. The quotation appeared in an essay titled “The Simple Art of Murder”. There were two such essays, but the quote was contained in only one. Consult the bibliographic notes below for the specifics.

Image Notes: Gun graphic from OpenClips on Pixabay. Photo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is from a promotional image for the film The Big Sleep. The photo is in the public domain and was obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Ruben Orozco whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1950 April 15, Saturday Review of Literature, The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler, Start Page 13, Quote Page 13 and 14, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  2. 1944 December, The Atlantic Monthly, “The Simple Art of Murder” by Raymond Chandler, Start Page 53, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts (Verified on paper)
  3. 1972, The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler, Ballantine Books, New York. (Examined fourth printing April 1980)
  4. 1972, Trouble Is My Business by Raymond Chandler, Quote Page ix, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified on paper in fifth printing April 1980)
  5. 1975 September 10, The Daily Courier (Connellsville Daily Courier), Ideas?: CBS Shouldn’t Worry About Beacon Hill’s ‘Message’ by George F. Will, Quote Page 24, Column 3, Connellsville, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 2003, Norman Mailer, Edited by Harold Bloom, Series: Bloom’s Modern Critical Views, “Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance and the Detective Tradition’s” by Robert Merrill, Quote Page 170, Chelsea House Publishers, Broomall, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Preview)