I wonder whether Ross Macdonald is as highly regarded as he once was. Perhaps serious students and fans of the mystery genre still rank him with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but it wouldn't surprise me if his reputation has suffered. Why? A suspicion that he might be considered old-fashioned, conventional, and bourgeois. The stout morality demonstrated in his work is of a sort that tends to be laughed at nowadays; the detective protagonist is masculine in an old-fashioned way; the portrayal of women is not such as to please feminists. The publishing world, or at least the part that publishes fiction, seems to be heavily oriented toward women today, as both writers and readers, and not just to women, but to feminists. On the other hand, I see that Sue Grafton, a highly regarded contemporary mystery writer, and apparently a feminist, admires Macdonald and was influenced by him. So perhaps I'm wrong.
Anyway, Macdonald's work does strike me as being more appealing to men than to women. Its origins are in the very masculine “hard-boiled” school of detective fiction, though in Macdonald's hands the genre loses most of its swagger and posturing and gains finesse, subtlety, and sensitivity. It's also less exotic, as compared with the earlier writers in the style: in Macdonald's stories there are fewer professional criminals and underworld types, and the crimes are generally of the less organized and more personal variety, often having to do with the affairs of a troubled family. Chandler (I almost said “Marlowe”) and Hammett have an allure which is slightly campy. They're associated with lurid pulp book covers, men in trench coats holding guns, film noir, "dames", and Humphrey Bogart (who played both Phillip Marlowe, Chandler's detective, and Sam Spade, one Hammett's). They are exotic, and were so even in their own time. And because they're exotic and are viewed with a bit of irony, they can be excused for being culturally retrograde with respect to women and social mores generally. Macdonald, on the other hand, though his career overlapped with Chandler's, seems closer to our own time—or at least he does to someone old enough to have known the world he writes about; perhaps not to young people.
Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer (reportedly named after Sam Spade's partner who gets killed off early in The Maltese Falcon) is a person we can imagine meeting and conversing with in an everday sort of way without feeling that we are on the set of a Bogart movie. Yes, he is a private detective, and he knows his way around the seamier side of life, but he is fundamentally normal in a way that Marlowe and Spade are not. He is a loner, like Marlowe, but he doesn't especially like it. He has been married, but his wife has left him for reasons that seem to have involved his work, and he regrets it. He's at home with middle-class people; his values are essentially middle-class values, though he himself is on the fringes. He's educated. Marlowe is of course very smart, and as I recall sometimes implausibly knowledgeable, but Archer gives signs of being an intellectual.
Above the massive bed there was a painting of a clock, a map, and a woman's hat arranged on a dressing table. Time, space, and sex. It looked like a Kuniyoshi.
—The Moving Target
If you know who Kuniyoshi is, you're ahead of me. ("Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (January 1, 1797 – April 14, 1861) was one of the last great masters of the Japanese ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints and painting.") Archer from time to time makes aesthetic judgments in very unlikely terms for a man who is supposed to have come up the hard way from a rough part of town. And if I remember correctly, he somewhere exhibits an incongruous knowledge of German poetry.
That sort of thing was no doubt pretty tempting to the author of the Archer novels. “Ross Macdonald” was the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, who was in fact an academic, having received a doctorate in literature (dissertation on Coleridge) from the University of Michigan. He and his wife, Margaret Millar, both began writing mystery-suspense novels early in their marriage, and that became their livelihood. (Margaret's work, though little known now, might, judging by a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, be worth looking into.) They moved to southern California, and Kenneth Millar, who became Ross Macdonald only after publishing half a dozen or so books under his own name and others, spent the rest of his life studying it by way of the basic method introduced by Raymond Chandler: through the eyes of a private investigator who moves among people and places without ever really being of them. The Chandler influence is obvious in the early work; this could be Marlowe:
“Why not?” I said. “The night is young.” I was lying. The night was old and chilly, with a slow heartbeat. The tires whined like starved cats on the fog-sprinkled black-top. The neons along the Strip glared with insomnia.
—The Moving Target
But Lew Archer has less of the pulp-fiction and noir cinema glamour, and more education and philosophy, than Marlowe. He is altogether a more modest and less flashy character.
Like Marlowe, Archer lives and works in southern California, and this is a very important aspect of the books. From the time Macdonald introduced Lew Archer, in The Moving Target (1949), until sometime near the publication of his final novel, The Blue Hammer (1976), it would not have been much of an exaggeration to say that most of the rest of the country wanted to be California. It's often been said that the state represents the terminus of the American Dream, the point where the impulse always to move on, and always to expand, met the impassable barrier of the Pacific Ocean. Whether that constituted the collapse or the fulfillment of the dream was always a matter of dispute, but for much of the 20th century, especially the twenty-five years or so following the end of World War II, the prevailing image was of blue skies and sunshine, affluence, freedom, youth, beauty, and pleasure. But that's not what Macdonald saw. California for him was disappointment, bewildered and sometimes angered by the failure of its dreams to materialize, or, if they did materialize, to satisfy. His poor people and his rich people are equally the captives of wealth, the former trying to get it and the latter trying to hold on to it.
I didn't believe Shepherd. I didn't disbelieve him. The mind that looked at me through his eyes was like muddy water continually stirred by fears and fantasies and greeds. He was growing old in the desperate hope of money, and by now he was willing to become whatever the hope suggested.
“Where are you going now, Randy? To Mexico?”
He was quiet for a moment, peering out across the flatland toward the sun, which was halfway down the west. A Navy jet flew over like a swallow towing the noises of a freight train. Shepherd watched it out of sight, as if it represented his last disappearing luck.
—The Goodbye Look
Macdonald became a poet-chronicler of that disappointment, and of the spiritual emptiness that produced and intensified it. The Archer novels are suffused with melancholy, and I think that was a big part of my initial attraction to them. If my memory is not deceiving me, I read my first one in 1970 or '71, when my own spirits were very low. I don't remember how I got on to it, but I was working in a music store in a suburban mall, and I seem to remember reading a Macdonald book on my lunch hour. Maybe I had just picked it up as light or escapist reading. I continued to read him occasionally over the next fifteen years or so, and there came a point where I realized that he was more than just an occasional diversion, that he had become one of my favorite writers.
Macdonald is one of those mystery writers who gets praised by critics for having transcended the genre. But I don't think that's really true, and I don't want to overstate his literary merit. If it weren't for the perennial lure of the detective story, if he had written conventional novels about humdrum events in ordinary lives, he would probably be remembered, if at all, as a minor figure. But the literary merit, by which I mean quality of prose and characterization and an element of interesting thought, in addition to the pleasure of a cunning plot, is there.
I heard a splash around the corner of the house and leaned out over the railing. The pool was on the upper terrace, an oval of green water set in blue tile. A girl and a boy were playing tag, cutting the water like seals. The girl was chasing the boy. He let her catch him.
Then they were a man and a woman, and the moving scene froze in the sun. Only the water moved, and the girl's hands. She was standing behind him with her arms around his waist. Her fingers moved over his ribs gently as a harpist's, clenched in the tuft of hair in the center of his chest. Her face was hidden against his back. His face held pride and anger like a blind bronze.
He pushed her hands down and stepped away. Her face was naked then and terribly vulnerable. Her arms hung down as if they had lost their purpose.
—The Moving Target
Chances are that this nondescript cover was on the first edition of The Moving Target that I read; it may have been the first Macdonald that I read.
This (click to see the entire image) is the jacket of the original UK edition of The Moving Target. Notice that Macdonald had not yet become "Ross." Unusually for this type of book, the cover art actually refers to a specific event in the novel. And for some reason Archer apparently became Arless.
I didn't realize until I started working on this piece that Macdonald has a Library of America volume; that certainly indicates that my view of his literary merit is not eccentric. I seem to remember a blurb from Eudora Welty appearing on some editions of his work, too.
I've read all eighteen of the Archer series, several of them more than once. One obvious criticism to be made of them is that they are formulaic. They generally follow a basic pattern that goes like this:
• Archer is summoned to meet a new client, or a new client comes to his office. (In the first case, the client is generally rich.)
• The client presents Archer with what first appears to be a relatively small problem: locate a person who hasn't been heard from in several days, investigate the theft of a family heirloom.
• The client gives Archer the name or names of one or more persons who might have relevant information.
• Archer contacts the person or persons, who in turn send him to others. The case begins to seem more complex (often because the client has withheld information, or actively lied).
• One or more murders happen, or are discovered to have happened in the past.
• Over the course of several days, Archer drives all over southern California pursuing leads. He meets a lot of people of all classes and conditions. The case becomes yet more complex. Sometimes he gets beaten up or shot. Frequently events decades in the past come to be very important in understanding the present.
• Archer solves the case. No one is very happy about it.
Her eyes were dull and unsurprised, as if she'd been hit by something that she'd seen coming from a long way off.
—The Goodbye Look
But although there is a formula, there is also a progression in Macdonald's career, and the formula is handled more skillfully as time goes on. Most noticeably, beginning with The Galton Case in 1959, the situations surrounding the crime tend to reach far into the past, to involve children and childhood experiences, often traumatic. Ancestral guilt and its consequences become very significant, and Macdonald often seems to be dealing through fiction with the after-effects of his own unhappy childhood. In general the later books go more deeply into the psychological complexities of the characters and their lives than the earlier ones.
When I started thinking about this piece, I could not, of course, re-read all eighteen books (nor would I want to—I reserve them for times when I really want to read them). So I picked two to re-read: The Moving Target, which as I mentioned earlier was the first of the Archer novels, and which may have been the first one I read, and The Goodbye Look, which was published exactly twenty years later, and which I also read early on, and had not read since. I'd say the latter is superior, for the reasons just stated, but there is no striking difference between them.
I said the books are suffused with melancholy, but they are also suffused with compassion, and Archer is its bearer. The people he encounters are almost uniformly sad cases. They are treated with a mixture of sympathy and unillusioned accuracy. Among my favorite features of the books are the brief sketches of minor characters, those whom Archer meets in his pursuit of the facts: a few paragraphs or a few pages, in which a frustrated life is glimpsed. There's an excellent instance in The Goodbye Look: a woman who runs a motor court through which some of the more important figures of the story have passed. It's too long to quote enough to give you the full picture, but here's how it opens; the place is called Conchita's Cabins, the time is the mid or late 1960s.
It was a ruined place, as ancient-looking as an archaeological digging. A sign on the office said: “One dollar per person. Children free.” The cabins were small stucco cubes that had taken a beating from the weather. The largest building, with “Beer and Dancing” inscribed across its front, had long since been boarded up.
The place was redeemed by a soft green cottonwood tree and its soft gray shade. I stood under it for a minute, waiting for somebody to discover me.
A heavy-bodied woman came out of one of the cabins. She wore a sleeveless dress which showed her large brown arms, and a red cloth on her head.
“I'm Mrs. Florence Williams. Conchita's been dead for thirty years. Williams and I kept on with her name when we bought the cabins.” She looked around her as if she hadn't really seen the place for a long time. “You wouldn't think it, but these cabins were a real moneymaker during the war.”
--The Goodbye Look
From the Christian point of view, Macdonald's work is deficient. It exhibits almost no awareness of religion, either practically or philosophically. I mentioned his conventional morality, and I mean exactly that: it is the conventional pragmatic morality of a culture which has ceased to be actively Christian but is not yet in full revolutionary flight. Archer may have a sexual interlude with a woman who's attracted to him, but you sense that if he had a wife he would be faithful to her.
And yet it is precisely as a Christian that I appreciate one aspect of his work. Though he doesn't use the term, and presumably did not believe in it in any real theological sense, the novels are permeated with a sense of the depth and persistence of original sin. There are works of literature, like Flannery O'Connor's, that point us toward answers. There are others that simply pose the questions in powerful ways, and Ross Macdonald's work is among those. Rarely do you hate his criminals, though you do not excuse them, either; they are people who, given the opportunity to commit a crime which will give them, or stop them from losing, something that they deeply desire, have chosen the crime, obtained or kept what they desired, and never since known peace.
Her eyes came up to mine. “What did you want, Archer?”
“Do you mean being here with me?” I thought she was overeager for a compliment, then realized she was kidding me a little. “I hardly justify a lifetime of effort.”
“The life is its own reward,” I countered. “I like to move into people's lives and then move out again. Living with one set of people in one place used to bore me.”
“That isn't your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don't you admit it?”
“I have a secret passion for mercy,” I said. “But justice is what keeps happening to people.”
--The Goodbye Look