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.