Periscope Depth

trouble is my business

There’s only one thing that infuriates me more than someone attributing to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, or Winston Churchill something they never said*. That’s someone accurately quoting a speaker, but so far removed from context as to completely invert the meaning of their words.

The above quote comes from the preface to Raymond Chandler’s Trouble is My Business, a 1950 collection of four short stories. In the preface, he talks about the limitations that the authors of pulp mysteries worked under.

As to the emotional basis of the hard-boiled story, obviously it does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. [...] Undoubtedly the stories about them had a fantastic element. Such things happened, but not so rapidly, nor to so closeknit a group of people, nor within so narrow a frame of logic. This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action; 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 overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

I have never seen that line quoted as something not to do, something Chandler would advise against. Yet the original context makes it clear that Chandler did not consider it a strength of his genre. This is especially obvious if you look at the surrounding sentences (“… if you stopped to think …”, “This could get to be pretty silly …”). There’s nothing wrong with heightening the tension in a scene by having a man come through the door with a gun in his hand, but Chandler knew it was a cliche sixty years ago, when he was writing about stories that were seventeen years old at the time.

If you’re looking for something of Chandler to quote, the last sentence of the above paragraph will suit better. It’s vivid, it hasn’t been heard a million times already, and it delivers useful advice to a struggling writer. But, most importantly, it doesn’t twist his words into the opposite of what he meant.

Shameless hypocrite that I am, I follow this rule (contra Chandler? pace Chandler?) at least once in Too Late to Run, now available through pre-order for the Amazon Kindle and on sale on November 17th, 2014. I urge you to buy the book, read to that point, and let me know if I get away with it.

* Mark Twain never said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I mean, come on. Every American child read Twain in high school. Does that even sound like him?