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BWW Review: ROSS MACDONALD: FOUR NOVELS OF THE 1950s Is a Great Introduction


"It isn't possible to brush people off, let alone yourself. They wait for you in time....Tom had a big colored dream and cast me for a part in it, which I was still playing out. I felt like a dog in his vomit."

The Doomsters (1958)

Remarking on the distinction between English drawing room mysteries and America's hard-boiled crime dramas, Raymond Chandler famously wrote that his role model, Dashiell Hammett, "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse."

Following both men, Ross MacDonald (born Kenneth Millar), as cheerful a fellow as you might surmise from that opening quote, took murder away from everybody and gave it back to you and me. People, that is, who may or may not have "reasons," even if they always think they do.

Though he shared a superficial sunbaked landscape with Chandler's Southern California setting, that was mostly an accident of geography. When MacDonald's main characters showed up in previous crime fiction, whether Chandler's or anyone else's, they were generally bit players being shoved around by gangsters or moguls or simple neurotics. Maybe, at the outside, the wise-cracking detective was there to protect them. When tragedy ensued, it usually signified that he had failed.

Though his detective, Lew Archer, could certainly turn a phrase, MacDonald's emphasis on the suburbs, on what might be happening down the street or even next door in Middle America, left him in a rather lonely place, speaking to people consumed by events larger than themselves, who talk back in the plainest, flattest language imaginable. When the worm turned again a generation later, writers like Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy gave murder straight back to the people who were at least well-suited for it psychologically, even if they were clueless bunglers.

They, like Hammett and Chandler, have legions of imitators.

What MacDonald accomplished has so far proven to be a trick that could only be turned once with any sort of force. The minute after he turned the light out in suburban America, those suburbs started eroding faster than a California coastline. So he wasn't just lonely, he was prescient.

The Library of America's new Ross MacDonald, Novels of the Fifties, is the first of a multi-volume set of the author's work (I believe they have three planned). This one aims to demonstrate the journey MacDonald took from first-rate Chandler imitator to his own voice and it does that job supremely well.

The first novel here, The Way Some People Die, is generally considered to be MacDonald's first important work, and if it were the best he had done, he would still be worthy of some attention. There were certainly parts he owed to Chandler. A line like, "Beyond a row of dwarf palms the sea was snoring and complaining like a drunk in a doorway. I spat in its direction and walked back to the motel." could have come straight out of Farewell My Lovely. But Chandler frankly did this better, and even he could be wearing.

What made MacDonald stand out is that, even in this early dues-paying stage, he was already edging toward something different, a place where the well-established hard-boiled elements would be the floor instead of the ceiling. In 1951, he already had a handle on the lost souls who would show up in his novels in the sixties, a day or two before they showed up in the decade's headlines. If his approach was occasionally tired or overwrought ("The sun and other stars had burned out long ago, and Mosquito and I were journeying for our sins through a purgatory of gray space.") or sentimental ("It was wonderful how much a pair of eyes could see without being changed by what they saw. The human animal was almost too adaptable for its own good.") it had the advantage of being oriented toward empathy for regular-sized humans.

The result is that as these volumes progress, through The Barbarous Coast (1956) and The Doomsters (1958), ending with MacDonald's first consensus masterpiece, 1959's The Galton Case, they accumlate into something pulp, especially serial pulp, rarely achieves: an arc bending toward genuine cultural tragedy.

The page-by-page pleasures (or indulgences) inherent in a journey with someone following in the footsteps of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe become rarer, but the plots are far more lucid, powerful and ingenious and the stake an involved reader has with recognizable people is both more palpable and harder to slough off as entertainment.

Though any passing acquaintance with his biography, or even the small helping of revelatory (if frequently pretentious) self-criticism attached to the end of this volume, shows MacDonald to have been both especially self-involved with his creation and specifically favoring the era's obsession with psychology over religion, he had evidently breathed in too much Evangelical air somewhere along the way for it to entirely leave his lungs.

In The Barbarous Coast, MacDonald defines one of his characters thus: "He was ashamed of what he was doing, but couldn't stop doing it." Maybe one of his predecessors would have granted that little piece of a Calvinist soul to somebody they liked. Archer spots it in one of the worst men he encounters, a thuggish gun for hire more or less devoid of morality or even human personality. Spying some human quality that may not even exist doesn't change the man being seen, but it changes the air and that kind of weight tells when it's down to someone Archer, MacDonald and the reader really do care about.

As the novels progress, these qualities flourish even as the style become less baroque, more succinct. By 1956, a line like, "It sounded like something tearing inside of her, permitting the birth of a more violent personality." isn't just an apt description of a woman in secret torment, it's lining up the future. The book's future for sure, and the author's, but also the way the world was drifting from the fifties toward the sixties and beyond. Now that we're living on the far edge of the drift, the quiet voice MacDonald used so flatly, insistently, evangelically, gives him more in common with some minor Old Testament prophet than Raymond Chandler or Sigmund Freud, the men to whom he seems to have most wanted to define himself against and who dominate stretches of his writing at the expense of what might otherwise be perfection (again, they did what they did better than MacDonald does).

We can be thankful that his voyage of self-discovery, which must have been gruesomely wearisome in real life, didn't derail his intent as a novelist, that the artist far surpassed the theorist. He sunk his literary teeth into the times like a dog gnawing a bone. What emerged should have been tiresome but instead not only works bui works better as time goes by. The plots wind and wind and come to telling and sometimes heartbreaking conclusions which let nobody off the hook.

People talk around and around, Archer and each other:

A bent doctor says, "She committed suicide. If you talked to Scott you know she was suicidal," and Archer says "Suicidal people can be murdered."

Archer talks to himself, sometimes deftly putting the knife in the culture's not-quite-dead carcass: "The screen became a window into a brightly lighted place where life was being lived, where a beautiful actress couldn't decide between career and children and had to settle for both."

Archer notices things: "Carl Hallman's clothes were the kind of clothes they give you to wear in prison. He had the awkward humility men acquire there. And there was a strangeness in him, stranger than fear, which might be one of guilt's chameleon forms."

Archer gets up on his hind legs, not so much white knight as tired curmudgeon:

"I got tired of living on a cop's salary. Among other things."
"There are always ways of padding it out."
"That was one of the other things I got tired of."

Archer serves up Hollywood America on the end of a very sharp fork:

"The boy was simply to let himself be discovered, and let the facts speak for themselves."
"The facts?" I said sharply.
"The apparent facts, if you like."

That last if from The Galton Case, which, in those lines and every line, feels like nothing so much as mid-20th-century America re-imagined as a giant movie set from which there is no escape because no one can figure out a clever ending.

By then, MacDonald had already established his unique ability to make both his detective and, through his detective, his readers, feel a kind of genuine kinship with the killer about to be exposed that pointedly does not extend to the usual modernist sympathy-for-the-psychopath shtick because we're forced to acknowledge the line between at least some killers and the rest of us is paper thin.

If by "the rest of us" I don't necessarily mean me or you, I might at least mean somebody we know.

When, in The Doomsters, a woman relaying what has to be the longest murder confession in the annals of real or imagined crime says, of her first victim, "I certainly wouldn't have killed him if he'd died when he was supposed to." the awfulness isn't in the coldness or narcissism of the words (surely we're all very used to that sort of thing by now), but in the fact that we she isn't cold or narcissistic. "I wasn't to spend it," she's said earlier of a ten dollar gold piece her permanently departed father sent her for her eighth birthday. "I didn't either. Mother did."

That's the moment she becomes a suspect, in the reader's mind if not the detective's. It's also the moment when it becomes possible to see her in purely sympathetic terms. To begin hoping to God she isn't the murderer.

In the world Ross MacDonald was building by the end of the fifties, and which he revisited again and again in the decade and a half left to his career, that feeling rose in nearly every novel he wrote. Don't let the Chandlerisms and the Freudian psychology that sometimes date these early novels, or the complaints some critics lodge aginst them, throw you. He's a writer well worth knowing and this well-chosen collection is a great place to start.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos

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John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)