Watching the Detectives

The essay “The Simple Art of Murder” written by crime writer Raymond Chandler was published in The Atlantic Monthly in December 1944. It’s his definitive statement on the mystery genre, encompassing insights on all manner of detective stories, country house murders, and hard-boiled crime fiction. The essay includes some praise, but mostly criticisms of such purveyors and stars of the genre including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and more. In the essay, he writes about the act of publishing and composing a work within the genre:

“The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it.”

During the course of the essay, Chandler lays out why detective stories are difficult to write:

“They do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art. The poor writer is dishonest without knowing it, and the fairly good one can be dishonest because he doesn’t know what to be honest about. He thinks a complicated murder scheme which baffled the lazy reader, who won’t be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details.”

Chandler expands on this idea to provide instances in which a detective story can succeed:

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things…The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

While cataloging what is wrong in the mystery genre and how the detective story can succeed in “The Simple Art of Murder,” what Chandler leaves unstated is his own work  in. At the point in his career that Chandler wrote the essay, he had already published numerous short stories as well as four novels, including The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. These novels feature the singular detective Philip Marlowe who has the “range of awareness” and the other heroic characteristics that Chandler deems necessary for a detective story to work. Though not explicitly stated, “The Simple Art of Murder” is a planting of a flag for Chandler. He issues a challenge to others working in the genre, knowing that he is the only one able to meet said challenge. In this way, “The Simple Art of Murder” is Chandler’s way of ensuring that his work was regarded among the leading crime fiction writers, if not the best of them all. 

It is with Chandler’s reflections on the mechanics of the detective story in mind that Elvis Costello’s song “Watching the Detectives” can be considered:

The song was recorded in May-June 1977 after the completion of Costello’s first album My Aim Is True but before its release to the public. The song, like the album, was produced by Nick Lowe, but utilized a different rhythm section than Costello had employed on the album. The song opens with a fanfare of sorts by the drummer Steve Goulding before being joined by Andrew Bodnar’s bassline as they lock into a strong reggae rhythm. Costello’s chicken scratch rhythm guitar enters and accompanies the bass and drums for a few measures before Costello’s lead guitar swoops in, embodying both the sound of an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack as well as a knife being sharpened on a leather strop.

The vocals start and Costello sets the scene in the first verse:

Nice girls not one with a defect,
Cellophane shrink-wrapped, so correct.
Red dogs under illegal legs.
She looks so good that he gets down and begs.

It’s a classic introduction of a femme fatale in a noir, especially the line “Red dogs under illegal legs.” This is the kind of language found in the works of Chandler, who once wrote of a character in 1942’s The High Window that “She had eyes like strange sins.” That description could be a line in “Watching the Detectives.” Costello sells the desperation in the last line of the verse, pausing before singing “begs” in a whispered, almost strangled way. The narrator is completely besotted with this woman as Costello ensures that the sexual longing of the narrator is evident through his singing.

With the conclusion of the first verse, Costello and the band move into the chorus:

She is watching the detectives.
“Ooh, he’s so cute!”

In this chorus, we learn that the femme fatale is enamored with television shows which feature the sort of detectives one would find in an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story. Her attention is focused completely on the character played by an actor on the screen: “Ooh, he’s so cute!” The chorus continues:

She is watching the detectives
When they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.
They beat him up until the teardrops start,
But he can’t be wounded ’cause he’s got no heart.

Costello works with ambiguity in these lines, playing in double meanings as he could be describing what is being depicted on screen: the bad guys beat up the “cute” main character until the main character cries, but there is nothing to truly worry about because he can’t be harmed since he isn’t real. At the same time, Costello is also describing the inner turmoil of the narrator, who is completely undone by the woman’s devotion to the detectives on the television. When Costello sings, “They beat him up until the teardrops start,” the “they” in this instance is not the bad guys on screen, but rather the onscreen detectives. Her adoration and dedication to these television characters leaves the narrator crying with frustration from her lack of attention. That shift in position changes the interpretation of the subsequent line — “But he can’t be wounded ’cause he’s got no heart” — that though the narrator cries tears for the femme fatale, it betrays a callousness that verges on a psychopathic lack of emotion. Chandler writes in “The Simple Art of Murder” that the purveyor of the detective story must write with “a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it.” In “Watching the Detectives,” Costello does write with that sense of detachment, but also saturates the narrator with the same detached perspective. 

Costello writes in his 2015 memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink that he had

“Read a lot of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett crime fiction in the preceding years, and about the only thing I liked on television were any late-night screenings of their film noir adaptations.”

It’s not surprising that Costello is versed in the works of Chandler and Hammett — one of the few crime writers that Chandler actually praises in “The Simple Art of Murder.” “Watching the Detectives” is a work of postmodernism in that Costello utilizes his knowledge of the imagery and language of Chandler/Hammett to create his own world that is based on the commenting of these same tropes of the mystery genre. With “Watching the Detectives,” Costello writes his own Chandler/Hammett story in which the characters within that story are watching actual Chandler/Hammett movies.

The second verse continues with a description of what’s be shown on television:

Long shot of that jumping sign,
Visible shivers running down my spine.

Here, Costello shifts to the first-person point of view for the first time ensuring that the narrator is indeed the man who gets down and begs as well as watching the detective shows with the female character. The second verse goes on:

Cut the baby taking off her clothes.
Close-up of the sign that says,”We never close”
You snatch a tune, you match a cigarette,
She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet.

The perspective of the song is all over the place, again representing both the actions on the screen as well as what’s happening inside the room with the two people watching the television. The final couplet represents the emotional peak of the verse:

I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.

These lines are devastatingly acute and demonstrate the immense talent of the 22-year old songwriter. The sexual longing and desire on the part of the narrator is transforming into frustration. The tone is getting darker as Costello stretches these words out in his singing, ensuring that the menacing aspect of the scene is clear. The minor chords of the musical accompaniment match the shift in tone of the narrator and the story. 

The last verse of “Watching the Detectives” relishes in the dark ambiguity of whether or not we are seeing what the narrator is seeing or simply watching actions on the television:

You think you’re alone until you realize you’re in it.
Now fear is here to stay. Love is here for a visit.
They call it instant justice when it’s past the legal limit.
Someone’s scratching at the window. I wonder who is it?
The detectives come to check if you belong to the parents
Who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter’s disappearance.
Though it nearly took a miracle to get you to stay,
It only took my little fingers to blow you away.

Are these real detectives visiting the narrator? A daughter’s disappearance; is that the female character or a different movie? Who is scratching at the window? So many questions. Costello overdubs his vocals at specific moments which, when combined with the intense deluge of words, create a sort of paralysis for the listener. The song could be equipped with the sort of warning before television shows that warn of flashing lights in the program that can be overwhelming for some viewers.

In this last verse, the narrator says, “It nearly took a miracle to get you to stay,” hinting at a reconciliation between the couple, but he finishes the line by saying, “It only took my little fingers to blow you away.” Again, Costello is working in double meanings with the sexual implication of the words coupled with the alternative reading that the narrator in fact set a bomb to kill off this woman. Unlike other noir, the woman is not a classic femme fatale. She does not have sinister intentions; she is simply watching her favorite programs on television. Her only “crime” is that she is ignoring the narrator, which drives him crazy. She’s innocent in this plot whereas he is the corrupted, doomed figure. 

The chorus that follows the last verse shifts in the pronouns: “I get so angry when the teardrops start, / But he can’t be wounded ’cause he’s got no heart.” Additionally, there’s a change from hearing the female character say of the man on the screen “He’s so cute,” instead we hear, “Don’t get cute!” These changes to the dialogue in the chorus as well as the words of the last verse imply that the narrator’s cold-blooded frustration overwhelms him enough to murder her. Costello writes in his memoir, “Whatever others have taken out of the song, I really never thought of it as a murder ballad.” Now it’s our turn to tell Costello, “Don’t get cute” as it is hard to not to draw that implication from these words. Chandler writes that “honesty is an art” in the detective story and Costello has successfully captured the honesty of the emotional tone of the song’s narrator even if the actual events are murky. The knife-sharpened Ennio Morricone guitar returns for the outro as the song fades out with Costello insistently repeating, “Watching the detectives.”

Thinking back on the composition of the song for the liner notes of the 2001 expanded release of My Aim Is True, Costello writes:

“I spent a lot of time with just a big jar of instant coffee and the first Clash album, listening to it over and over. By the time I got down to the last few grains, I had written ‘Watching the Detectives.’”

What was it about The Clash that inspired Costello to produce this specific song? The songs on The Clash’s first album have a sense of immediacy, commenting on the world around them, expounding on the police, brothel keepers, bureaucrats, big business, record companies, Watergate, the CIA, race and class in the United Kingdom, the lack of jobs, drugs, and more. The songs are defiant and represent the specific points of view of the songwriters Joe Strummer and Mick Jones. Listening to the album, one can’t help but be swept up in their perspective, in no small part because of the intensity and passion of the music and especially the vocals. 

The song on the album that must have spoken most to Costello was “London Burning”:

Strummer and company sing:

All across the town, all across the night
Everybody’s drivin’ with full headlight
Black or white you turn it on, or face the new religion
Everybody’s sittin’ ’round watchin’ television
London’s burnin’
(With boredom now)
London’s burnin’
(Dial nine nine nine nine nine).

Costello must have heard this call as one specific to his own situation. He too decided to talk about the world around him. Instead of current events and the outside world, he considered the world around him as a young husband and father, who is frustrated by having to work a day job. No one is recognizing his talent as a songwriter and performer, and he is looking for someone to blame. He hears The Clash calling out to the television watchers who are burning down London, not with rage, but with boredom. For Costello, he takes the same spite exhibited by The Clash and transforms it from punk into his own postmodern milieu, contending with ideas of boredom, sexual frustration, and his dark fantasies. At this point in time, Costello’s world is private, not public like The Clash.

During “Cheat,” another song on The Clash, they sing:

Don’t use the rules
They’re not for you, they’re for the fools
And you’re a fool if you don’t know that
So use the rules, you stupid fool.

Where that last line could have been heard as accusatory, Costello heard it not only as inspiration but as a challenge to him as a songwriter. After all, Strummer and Jones were his contemporaries. The Clash was released in April 1977, and Costello recorded “Watching the Detectives” in May-June of 1977. The song was Costello’s answer to their call, but also his attempt to meet and surpass the standard set by their example. 

Though My Aim Is True would be released in July 1977 and would generate sales and critical reception as well as making Costello a made guy in the music industry, “Watching the Detectives” is the song where he finds his true voice, addressing the themes of frustration, irony, anger, and longing. These are subject matters that Costello would return to throughout the rest of his career. Costello would also inhabit the noir world again, playing with its settings and tone. Even the detective imagery crops up again as seen in “Man Out of Time” on 1982’s Imperial Bedroom. The song presents a different musical context than “Watching the Detectives,” but still displays a similar mindset:

So this is where he came to hide
When he ran from you
In a private detective’s overcoat
And dirty dead man’s shoes.

Not only does Costello find his voice in “Watching the Detectives,” but it is also the first time he worked with Steve Nieve, who overdubbed organ and piano, providing what Costello referred to as “something from a Bernard Herrmann score.” This is a reference to the legendary composer known for such noir and suspense work such as Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Taxi Driver, and The Twilight Zone. Nieve intuitively achieved this feeling in “Watching the Detectives.” He became the first member of Costello’s long-time backing group The Attractions. Costello and Nieve maintain their musical partnership today even after the demise of The Attractions. Their pairing is best heard on the 1996 live album Costello & Nieve which includes a terrific performance of “Watching the Detectives.”

Armed with a band that he could truly call his own, Costello began to conquer the world with the recording of his breakout album 1978’s This Year’s Model. But his specific and unique songwriting voice first flourished and matured with “Watching the Detectives.” All it took was taking a musical goading by The Clash personally and engaging in the simple art of murder.

Image: Warner Bros., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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