This weekend marked the 100th birthday of Ross Macdonald. Often referred to as the third father of the private eye novel, along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he is the lesser known of this triumvirate. There are authors that may not have read one of his books, yet borrow from him just the same.
“I love to be with him in mid-century California,” says author Ace Atkins. “He picks up when Chandler left us and continues to be the moral compass in shifting times. But beyond what we expected of a crime book, he showed us how violence, turmoil and greed can effect family. The greatest at character study.”
Of the three, he was the most prolific; Macdonald wrote over twenty novels, stretching from The Dark Tunnel, originally released in 1944 under his real name Kenneth Millar, to The Blue Hammer, Macdonald’s last novel, published in 1976. Most featured his laconic private detective, Lew Archer.
In some ways, his sizable number of books may be the reason he isn’t known as well as Hammett and Chandler, who left behind a smaller body of work from a single time period. Macdonald’s work gives a wider breadth to study without that “definitive” book. In this larger canvas, one can see him incrementally evolve.
His early work, influenced by Chandler, stuck closer to the genre tropes of gangsters, molls, and gunfights. His canvas stretched further each time with his recurring themes of society and morality. By the sixties, he grew in confidence, dropping many of the PI trappings, focusing more on the themes. According to Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, the quantity helped attribute to the quality.
In his biography of Macdonald, Nolan writes “[Macdonald’s high output] gave him a chance to grow out of the conventions he inherited from those earlier writers and into his own mature style and subject-matter, thus bringing greater psychological depth to the detective novel (and to his own detective Lew Archer).”
While his predecessors played with social conditions in their work, Macdonald gave us the template for using the PI as social critic. He connected the dots between the social strata, giving the reader a detailed cause and effect road map. Influenced by Greek tragedy, Macdonald’s books dealt with money, power, and greed. Combined with the style and mood of the noir novel, they carry a feel that is as much Southern Gothic as Southern California. The labyrinth plots he ran Archer through, fit the complexity of the psychological and social themes into which he delved.
Macdonald told interviewer Paul Nelson he thought his most significant contribution was his introduction of Symbolist and Imagist poetic technique into detective-novel prose: all those descriptive images containing larger allusions. (Examples include: “A moon like a fallen fruit reversing gravity was hoisting itself above the rooftops.” “An owl flew low over our heads, silent as a traveling piece of fog.”)
Nolan muses, in an interview via email, ” I think he’s more obviously appreciated for bringing a greater reality to the form, for moving crime-stories away from a black-and-white worldview of evil-versus-good towards a more accurate representation of a flawed and compromised society. Also, as Jon Breen recently pointed out, “Macdonald took pains to create a fair-play plot, thus completing the merger of hardboiled and traditional detective fiction.”
Nolan takes slight issue with the belief that Macdonald wrote the same book over and over-
“You might more accurately say he wrote two books over and over: the child seeking the missing parent, and the parent seeking the missing child. That’s simplifying things a lot – he wrote stories that didn’t fit those templates – but in the books that did follow those patterns, he composed variations and reversals on his recurring themes, in part to surprise readers who thought they knew what was coming. It was a little like psychoanalysis, he said: When you tell the same story more than once, you see different things each time.”
In Archer, he has a hero that is simple and straightforward enough to handle the complexity. Archer refuses to announce himself. The reader gets to know him through bits and pieces of who he is through reading the series. The weight of his character is seen though how he deals with the cases and his opinion of those involved.
“A man so thin that if he turned sideways he’d disappear.” Atkins quotes Macdonald’s own description on of Archer, then elaborates. “He disappears into the case. He is really like a great journalist who reflects the truth. A mirror. Do we care about his background, his personal story in the scope of the larger picture? Not at all.”
After decades, Macdonald’s work still holds up and feels modern. His first Archer novel, The Moving Target, covers family dysfunction, drug abuse, and illegal immigration; Archer delivers insights, still applicable today, into how a city like Los Angeles can effect an individual. The substance of Macdonald’s work is more than those surface details; it’s the emotions of the people he deals with and family and society’s effect on them.
“… he was exploring how people treat one another, when tempted or when under stress,” says Tom Nolan. “These are timeless matters.”
As another fan, author Eudora Welty, put it, “Other authors of detective fiction write about crime, Ross Macdonald writes about sin.”
Six Ross Macdonald Must Reads
1. Blue City
A pre-Archer novel with war vet Johnny Weather, who returns home to find his political fixer father murdered and the local law and his stepmom uninterested in finding the killer. With the help of a local hooker, he takes matters into his own hands and trudges through the corruption to track down those responsible. A colorful and politically astute post-WW2 hard boiled.
Archer travels across California on the trail of a missing nurse who a group of gangsters are after as well. A wonderful slam-bang Pi novel, full of wit and fun, where Archer begins to show his heart.
Archer traverses Malibu society and gets on the wrong side of mobsters when he’s hired my a mogul to find a missing starlet. Still in his “Chandler period”, Archer puts a fresh spin on the tropes and uses them for his own explorations of morality.
4. The Chill
Archer’s pursuit of a runaway bride unlocks several family secrets and unsolved murders. A final reveal worthy of its title.
Against the backdrop a large forest fire, Archer’s search for a boy kidnapped by his father evolves into a case dealing with blackmail, murder, and one hell of a dysfunctional family. Considered by many as his best. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will discuss this classic noir on Tuesday, December 15th, at 2 PM in BookPeople’s cafe.
6. The Archer Files edited by Tom Nolan
Tom Nolan has collected all of Macdonald’s detective fiction as well as fragments of work. He also collects all the bits and pieces from those books to give a biography on the PI. It’s a look at the character and creator in a nutshell.
You can find copies of the books listed above on our shelves or via bookpeople.com.