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I Can’t Say Goodbye to Ross Macdonald

Some writers keep drawing you back to them. Among crime writers, one who does this to me is Ross Macdonald. I first read him when I was 13 – the novel was The Goodbye Look, a Lew Archer mystery from 1969. At the time I read it, the mid-'70s, the book was contemporary, and I remember the enjoyment I felt reading a hard-boiled private eye story that was not Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler – in other words, that type of mystery story but not set in the past. I liked Hammett courtesy of Red Harvest and the Continental Op short tales I’d read, and I adored Chandler from reading Farewell, My Lovely (that cool, cynical voice!), but Macdonald felt different. I recall thinking that Macdonald’s characters were people I might actually meet.

The Southern California suburbs he described were different than the suburb I lived in north of New York City, but the problems and issues he explored seemed familiar: parents and children who struggle to communicate, husbands and wives arguing, unhappiness despite comfortable surroundings, families with secrets, the importance of psychology and psychologists in apparently everybody’s worldview.

I recall, too, from that particular read, that the complicated plot held me enthralled. I’ve read a number of Archer books since adolescence, of course, and The Goodbye Look twice more, and I have to say that the pleasure of sifting through Macdonald’s plots is one that has never diminished. Nor has the emotional satisfaction I get reading Macdonald at his best. In his full maturity, Lew Archer has got to be as compassionate a private eye as ever existed, and the people he investigates have a psychological richness that draws you into their stories. Through Archer, you feel their pain.

The first six Archer books are enjoyable. Macdonald writes classic, terse Southern California mysteries in the Chandler tradition.  That’s a key point: from The Moving Target (1949) through The Barbarous Coast (1956), Macdonald’s talent is obvious but so are his influences. In The Moving Target, for example, Archer’s narrative voice has a self-conscious toughness barely present in the later works, and the dialogue often works too hard. Macdonald pushes to be witty in the literary street patter style of the day. Take this stilted exchange:

“The name is Archer,” I said. “Do you use bluing when you wash your hair? I had an aunt who said it was very effective.” His face didn’t change. He showed his anger by speaking more precisely. “I dislike superfluous violence. Please don’t make it necessary.” I could look down on the top of his head, see the scalp shining through the carefully parted hair. “You terrify me,” I said. “An Italianate Englishman is a devil incarnate.”

A little farther on, Archer says that he hates being touched by a man because “his hands were epicene.” There’s no way the Archer of the '60s and '70s would express this contemptuous and macho a sentiment, and more than once in The Moving Target, Archer suddenly finds himself kissing a seductive young woman whose “lips were hot on my face.” You could get this kind of stuff in any private eye tale of the day.

By the third book, The Way Some People Die (1951), Macdonald as a hard-boiled craftsman is working on all cylinders. I'd even say that this novel is among my favorites in the series. It has a relentless quality and an overall sense of nastiness. In a case with a high body count, Archer has to outmaneuver the police and the mob while moving from one seamy location to another, and it's here that we first get a glimpse of the Archer to come – a thoughtful man who keeps his composure amid deception and dysfunction, familial and otherwise, of the worst sort.

The Doomsters (1958) and The Galton Case (1959) mark the turning point. In these books, the Archer voice changes into something unique, and for the remaining 10 books, the full-fledged Macdonald conception of a private eye appears. Hammett, non-romantic to his core, had created the tough existentialist protagonist. Chandler’s version was more romantic, the ever popular tarnished knight. Both write stories with sociological overtones, but the emphasis remains on catching the wrongdoer. Motivation is considered insofar as it will help in nailing the culprit. Empathy is not a quality that comes to mind when you think of the Op or Spade or even Marlowe. But for Archer, product of a creator who went to therapy for his own issues (a childhood shadowed by the early separation of his parents, an absent father, and a lot of moving around growing up), trying to get at the why of crime, the root causes, becomes the investigative touchstone.

As Macdonald wrote in his 1965 essay “The Writer as Detective Hero,” Archer “is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.” He comes across sometimes as a therapist as much as he is a detective, a role he acknowledges. And what psychiatric school does he follow? Well, Macdonald is nothing if not a Freudian, and with Freud, for better or worse, the key to psychological problems usually lies in childhood. From The Galton Case on, Macdonald’s plots follow one pattern: trouble in the present, usually involving family tensions, stems from murder and other traumas in the past.

The generations are at odds, the relationships between younger adults and their parents are strained, and the arrogance and hypocrisies of the parents cause no end of damage to their children. People try to cover up and repress past experience, but as every respectable Freudian knows, repression is merely the mother of neuroses. Archer does his probing through these inter-generational webs of conflict, and though he tends to sympathize with the young against the old, he casts few judgments. He knows that repression solves nothing, that what’s buried will bubble up in the present, causing calamity. He explains his view of time's weave in The Chill (1962) – “History is always connected with the present” – and expounds on it in The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), “Life hangs together in one piece.  Everything is connected with everything else. The problem is to find the connections.”

How Macdonald creates a fabric where the past is present and connections are pervasive is through his intricate plots, which are things of beauty. His ideas on plot are essential to understanding him as a writer, and he expresses them best himself in the essay I quoted earlier.

Here he puts his ideas in context, explaining how he differs from the giant looking over his shoulder – Chandler: "I learned a great deal from Chandler — any writer can — but there had always been basic differences between us. One was in our attitude to plot. Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it. The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure. Which means that the structure must be single, and intended."

The argument against Macdonald’s plots is that he had only one (from The Galton Case on) and used it again and again. That’s not completely untrue. But it’s a great plot, and what he does in each book is work variations on it. That Macdonald likes jazz is obvious from the jazz player references he makes in his books – people such as Lux Lewis and Mary Lou Williams are mentioned in The Moving Target, JC Higginbotham in The Far Side of the Dollar – and I wonder whether Macdonald saw himself doing something a jazz musician would do, riffing on a theme and continually reworking it, trying in his mind to get it just perfect.

Reading him now, you go into each of the last 11 Archer novels knowing what he’s going to explore in that book and how more or less he’s structured it, yet it doesn’t matter. You still admire the construction, the suspense, and the mastery of language.  You still live with the anguished, striving characters. His characters kill for any number of reasons, but nobody is what you'd call an evil person. He would agree with what the crime writer Ruth Rendell said about criminal motivation, that "Crimes are more often committed out of fear than wickedness. People lead frightened, desperate lives." Macdonald's characters fit this description to a tee, and his understanding of the human weaknesses that lie behind the monstrous acts is what leaves you finishing his books feeling, above all else, as in Greek tragedy, pity.

Macdonald fused plot, character, style, and psychology in the private eye novel like nobody had before him. He used genre fiction to explore his deepest personal concerns and obsessions. As a writer (and I don't even write PI novels), I've come to regard him as one of those novelists you can keep learning from, and as I said, he’s a writer I keep coming back to, reading and re-reading.

Who among crime writers do you keep returning to?

–Scott Adlerberg

Originally posted at Do Some Damage.

Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love.

One Response

  1. Bob D. says:

    Macdonald is a great favorite of mine as well. I often revisit his novels and I wish he got more mainstream attention today. Scott Adlerberg breaks down Macdonald, and Lew Archer, so wonderfully in this post. It’s really hard to pick favorites with his books, but the two I re-read most often are The Barbarous Coast (1956) from his early period and Black Money (1966) from his later period.