On Ross Macdonald

It’s funny how blogs make the world a much smaller place. An old friend of mine, with whom I worked in my bookshop days, got back in touch with me at the start of the year, having found my blog online. He lives in Australia now, although we met nineteen years ago in Cambridge Waterstones, where he ran the philosophy department and I ran fiction. We were destined to get on well, given that sort of context. Anyhow, catching up over the email he suggested I might like the crime fiction novels of Ross Macdonald, and what a good call that was. I’ve since then read The Galton Case and The Wycherley Woman and I loved them both. Ross Macdonald was one of the ‘holy Trinity’ of American hard-boiled authors that included Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and he was best known between the fifties and the seventies. He was hailed by the New York Times as ‘the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American’, for the novels he wrote featuring private eye, Lew Archer.

Archer is an extraordinary creation, a man about whom the reader knows practically nothing, and yet he leaps off the page with his wise-cracking wit and his sharp observations. When the investigation begins, Archer is like an arrow shot from a bow, an unstoppable force of avenging energy, slicing through the deceitful testimonies and the masked expressions of his witnesses, to find the suffering humanity beneath. He covers a lot of ground, too, through the darker areas of California, be they the loveless mansions of the rich, the seedy motels of the dodgers, or the impoverished shacks of the dispossessed. In The Wycherley Woman, the case is resolved in a couple of days, out of which Archer sleeps for about six hours. ‘I have a secret passion for mercy,’ Archer says, ‘But justice is what keeps happening to people.’ You can’t help but keep turning the pages because Archer won’t rest for five minutes together, and his compulsion becomes the readers; there’s great pleasure to be had from this because Archer is one tough nut, masterful in analysis, tenacious in chasing down criminals and almost superhuman in strength. He’s regularly beaten up, but once the bandages are on, off he goes again, dogged to the bitter end.

What struck me about both books once I’d finished them was their family resemblance. In The Galton Case, Archer is asked to trace the son of a rich, dying old lady who has been missing for twenty years. Instead he unearths a potential grandson, but Archer is suspicious because of the fortune at stake; is it possible he has stepped into a clever conspiracy? In The Wycherley Woman, it’s a daughter gone missing this time, and not long before Archer finds out that her alcoholic, unravelling mother is on the loose, too. Dysfunctional families are at the heart of Macdonald’s novels, and they exert a force of gravity that pulls certain types into their orbit: tight-lipped, long-suffering extended family, servants who know too much, manipulative doctors, and bright but wayward young relatives on the brink of disaster. Reading up on Ross Macdonald, having been made curious by these two novels, I found that this similarity was intrinsic to his work. Some critics accused him of writing the same novel over and over again, but Macdonald defended his intentions. Recovering the same sort of terrain was essential to his methods: ‘Every time you do it, you dig deeper,’ Macdonald once said. ‘It’s like going to a shrink; you’re telling the same story every time, but at the same time you’re discovering different aspects of it, and of yourself.’

Macdonald knew what he was talking about, having been impressed by the artistic possibilities of psychoanalysis after undergoing therapy himself. His life was itself scarred by various tragedies; his father deserted the family home, leaving Macdonald’s mother to a life of skimping and striving and sponging off relatives. Macdonald had a rough youth, becoming a street fighter and a petty thief for a while, before settling down to marriage and a doctoral thesis on Coleridge (a writer with his own problems). But the marriage, to crime novelist Margaret Millar was never happy, and his relationship to his drug-addict daughter was a stormy one that ended with her premature death. Various kinds of brokenness characterised the cast of Macdonald’s novels, and of most of them he had some personal knowledge.

What made these novels stand out for me were the quality of the writing and the brilliance of the plotting. So much contemporary crime seems to me sensational and implausible, whereas Macdonald weaves a complex web out of a finite collection of relationships. There are a series of helter-skelter twists towards the end, some real surprises, and then the revelation of the murderer fits so neatly into place that very little explanatory analysis is required. In neither of these novels did I guess the ending, in fact I wasn’t even close, but when it came I could see how Macdonald had achieved his intention of making the past reverberate on the present. It’s seriously classy crime, and I’ll certainly be reading more of it.


16 thoughts on “On Ross Macdonald

  1. I’m thrilled, I just found one of his books on one of my shelves. Haven’t read it yet but looking forward to it now. The author certainly sound sinteresting too. Undergoing psychoanalysis should guarantee that his characters are psychlogically convincing. I don’t mind the writing the same novel again so much, if it is agood one to start with. Chandler did that also to a certain extent. So many people rave about Nesbø’s The Snowman and I found it painfully implausible.

    • I won’t be giving Nesbo a second chance. I ompletely agree with you about his painful implausibility. I read The Snowman (Snømannen) to the end because of Nesbø’s reputation and because of my compulsion to hate-read bad books to the end, if I manage get halfway or so and also because of the spooky beginning.
      I found the spooky creepy atmosphere at the beginning well done; also well done, the adultery in the opening chapter, which was truly awful — sordid, selfish and believable. In a Scandinavian novel it’s a little unusual to treat sex acts as if they had any moral significance (unless it’s maybe a rich conservative authority figure raping somebody).
      But that’s not enough.

  2. So glad you’ve finally discovered the wonders of Macdonald. Now you know I haven’t been lying all these years. You’ve beautifully captured here why he’s so terrific.

  3. The last time MacDonald was mentioned I went over to the library site to see what I could find, but even though I live in one of the country’s largest cities the sum total was none. I turned away with disgust and then forgot to look any further afield. So, I’m very glad you’ve jolted my memory because I know I want to read these.I don’t suppose they’re going to be available on KIndle, but it’s worth a look.

  4. Thes aren’t usually my type of book you make them sound so good I’m going to have to check for them at the library sometime. I’ll also have to ask my husband if he has read them because he loves books like this.

  5. I haven’t read MacDonald, but the last paragraph of your review perfectly describes another crime novelist I recently discovered–Louise Penny. I was wondering if you’d read her work? She writes police procedurals featuring a Quebecois Chief Inspector, and I’m really savoring plot, prose, and setting. I’d love to read your review of her work!

  6. I’ve only read Dashiell Hammett and James Cain–I can see I really need to broaden my horizons. How can I call myself a mystery and crime novel reader and not have read all these authors? I like the sound of Ross Macdonald. Am duly adding him to my list. Glad you found a really satisfying crime novel–I know you didn’t have much luck last year!

  7. I didn’t think this was my kind of thing either – but I just finished the Big Sleep (‘borrowed’ off the man before he’d actually had a chance to read it) and loved it. So I’m now whomping my way through the High Window. I can’t ‘do’ accents out loud, but my inner voice as I’m reading the story is adding sleazy sax, drawling voice and a black-and-white tone. I’m on the look out for some more stylish (and stylised) crime – and so this is getting added to my LT to read list.

    Thanks for the review!

  8. Caroline – I am having a BIG gripe at the moment about the general level of implausibility in contemporary popular fiction. Whether it’s crime or romance or issue based novels, the sensationalism and sheer ludicrousness of the plotline really depresses me. Reading Macdonald reminds me that you can have clever, gripping novels that feature ordinary people committing ordinary crimes. I do hope you enjoy him.

    Emily – I do trust your judgement, and have ready many books I’ve really enjoyed thanks to your recommendation! I’d forgotten that you love Macdonald, but I really see why. He’s fab.

    Annie – I think there’s a good chance you’d like them so I will cross my fingers that you can get hold of him. I noticed that he is currently being re-issued by a small publisher – which means he is back in print, but the books are not cheap. Amazon has good deals and so do the secondhand market place sellers (The Wycherley Woman I bought for a penny, plus postage and packing). Kindle might be a possibility. Do hope you find one!

    Harriet – I think you and I often appreciate the same types of books! His name seems to have been lost a bit recently, but I do hope he’ll become more widely available again.

    Stefanie – oh these would be great for your bookman! Ask him if he thinks you’d like them – I’d love to know what you make of Macdonald.

    Niranjana – ooh I do have a Louise Penny on my shelves that I’ve been meaning to get around to (you know how it goes). I will definitely bump her up the TBR on your recommendation.

    Lilian – I would love to know what you think of him! Stylistically, I really like his writing – love the wise cracks.

    Danielle – bless you for remembering that! No, last year was a bit of a crime washout, but this year has been much better. And I’d love to know what you think of Macdonald. I found him accessible and satisfying.

    Rose – I love the sound of your inner voice! I’m sure that’s exactly what you need to enjoy hardboiled crime! And I’d be most interested to know what you make of Macdonald. I really must read Chandler – I’m sorry to say he’s slipped my net up until now, but I am very curious about his novels.

    Rohan – I would so like to know what you make of him. The psychological depth and the family situations (lots of echoes of Oedipus and so on) would be good to teach, I’d think.

  9. I really liked the one Macdonald book I read with my mystery book group (Emily’s selection, no surprise!), The Underground Man. It was an unhappy family novel as well, and it also had some environmental themes, both of which I thought he handled very well. I would certainly like to read more of him.

  10. Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.

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