Ross Macdonald Essay - Critical Essays

Ross Macdonald American Literature Analysis

The traditional detective novel is a puzzle: It begins with a crime, proceeds through a search for a solution, and concludes with the culprit exposed. Characterization is minimal and often stereotypical, and there is little thematic development beyond the obvious: Crime does not pay, for the criminal never triumphs, and eventually normality is restored. Macdonald’s work does not follow this pattern. By his fourth novel, Macdonald was writing complex studies of the human condition that had begun to move beyond genre fiction to the realm of mainstream literature. Though mysteries are central and a private detective is narrator and prime protagonist, Macdonald’s multilayered narratives mainly examine the ways in which the past impinges upon the present and how people often are trapped by a heritage of which they are unaware.

Having begun as a spy novelist with The Dark Tunnel and Trouble Follows Me, Macdonald in 1947 published his first hard-boiled novel in the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett tradition: Blue City. Its exile theme and its inclusion of a search for a father foreshadow Macdonald’s later works, including his fourth book, The Three Roads. The title recalls Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), and the plot focuses upon the attempts of Macdonald’s hero, Bret Taylor, to reestablish his identity by recalling his past after a wartime bout with amnesia. This is the first Macdonald book with California as the primary locale—a territory he would mine in his remaining twenty novels.

A year later, in The Moving Target, he introduces his private eye and narrator Lew Archer, who is featured in seventeen more novels and two story collections. Archer’s name comes from Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s murdered partner in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930). According to Macdonald, though, Archer is “patterned on Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe,” also a “semi-outsider . . . fascinated but not completely taken in by the customs of the natives.” Unlike Chandler, Macdonald does not consider his detective to be the character who provides the “quality of redemption”; instead, he says, that quality “belongs to the whole work and is not the private property of one. . . . The detective-as-redeemer is a backward step in the direction of sentimental romance, and an oversimplified world of good guys and bad guys.”

In 1973, after having written about Archer cases for almost a quarter of a century, Macdonald commented, “My narrator Archer’s wider and less rigidly stylized range of expression, at least in more recent novels, is related to a central difference between him and Marlowe. Marlowe’s voice is limited by his role as the hard-boiled hero.” Archer, in fact, is an unusual private eye in many ways. For example, money is incidental to him, important mainly to pay the rent. Further, he invariably is drawn emotionally to one of his clients—not usually sexually but rather from a feeling of kinship with fellow sufferers, for he thinks that he “sometimes served as a catalyst for trouble, not unwillingly.”

Though not obsessed with the past in the way his clients and suspects are, at one point he looks in a mirror and remarks that “all I could read was my own past, in the marks of erosion under my eyes.” The past is a living presence that causes him to empathize with those who are its prisoners. Above all, Archer is a good listener who often solves cases because he learns so much from those who take him into their confidence and talk freely to him. Unlike most series detectives, Archer is neither static nor two-dimensional, for Macdonald expanded the persona over the years: Archer’s moralizing and sermonizing tendencies increase in the later novels. While his ratiocinative instincts remain as sharp as ever, they are tempered by a greater sensitivity; he becomes more humane.

Macdonald’s novels also developed as the years passed, with major thematic concerns surfacing. In The Drowning Pool, the themes of corporate greed and environmental destruction are central; they are motifs that figure prominently in such later books as The Underground Man and Sleeping Beauty. In The Doomsters (1958), Macdonald believed that he had made “a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition, which it had taken some years to digest, and freed me to make my own approach to the crimes and sorrows of life.” His most complex novel to that point, it has a plot (not simply a series of scenes in the Chandler manner) that presents a family saga as a means of dramatizing a theme. Furthermore, Archer for the first time becomes involved in the events and is not at all the detached private eye hired for a job.

The Doomsters leads directly to Macdonald’s next novel, The Galton Case, his thirteenth, by which time he, by his own account, had “learned what every novelist has to learn: to convert his own life as it grows into his fiction as he writes.” In writing it, he delved into his own past while maintaining aesthetic distance and gave a new dimension to what had become his customary concerns: the identity quest, greed, alienation, and the “pastness of the present.”

In the eight novels of the following decade (all but the first, The Ferguson Case of 1960, featuring Lew Archer), the growth of Macdonald’s plotting skills continues, whereas his characters remain superficial; the length limitations to which mystery genre writers had to conform may have mitigated against attempting both complex plotting and in-depth character development. In each of the books, his standard mix of posturing and duplicitous people—young victims, troubled women, arrogant yet insecure and unhappy rich people—confront resurrected pasts. An observation by Archer about one such person is applicable to many: “The mind that looked at me through his eyes was like muddy water continually stirred by fears and fantasies and old greed.”

Macdonald’s last novel of the decade, The Goodbye Look, was his first best seller and the first of his books to be reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, unusual for a mystery writer. Written during the Vietnam War, it has an antiwar theme in addition to Macdonald commonplaces. By this twenty-first of his novels (and the sixteenth Lew Archer novel), Macdonald’s surer hands juggle his most complex plot to date, encompassing six different families whose paths cross over a quarter of a century.

Before being incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease, Macdonald wrote three more novels: The Underground Man, Sleeping Beauty, and The Blue Hammer, the first of which is generally considered his masterpiece. In addition to the recurring presence of familiar Macdonald motifs, there is in it a major focus upon the environment and ecological matters, the latter through means of a forest fire that rages during most of the book. The multiple plots, dealing with past and present events, are unified not only by the tight organization and overlapping of characters but also by their exemplification of the thematic underpinning, again involving the pastness of the present.

Sleeping Beauty is something of a sequel to its predecessor, focusing as it does upon the environment by means of an oil spill that is its primary symbol. The fragile link between people and nature, with human greed upsetting the necessary balance, is always in the background of the plot, which progresses through three generations of a family’s corruption and concludes with a metaphorical linking of the human and natural tragedies. Also of interest in the novel is the suggestion that Lew Archer is faltering: Becoming too involved emotionally with a young woman, the “sleeping beauty” of the title, he unwittingly permits a murderer to commit suicide.

Macdonald’s last novel, The Blue Hammer, which had its genesis in notebook entries written fourteen years before he completed it, is a fully realized delineation of the double motif and the need for self-realization; it is his most complex treatment of these and other standard motifs since The Goodbye Look. Critics complained about his reliance upon timeworn formulas and his reworking of previously used plots and characters, amounting to little more than a variation on old themes. Along with the sameness, however, there are significant differences. The Cain-Abel motif is new, and Archer is more introspective. Further, though he had been the consummate loner in so many novels over twenty-five years, the changes suggested in Sleeping Beauty lead in this novel to his first love affair, which not only ends in disappointment (“when she dropped out of sight, I felt the loss of part of myself”) but also distracts him from his proper pursuits.

In The Underground Man, a minister sends a letter to a character whose search for his father initiates most of the key events, including the son’s murder. The Reverend Riceyman’s message, which Archer calls “good advice,” can serve as a coda to most of the Macdonald canon: “The past can do very little for us—no more than it has already done, for good or ill—except in the end to release us. We must seek and accept release, and give release.”

The Moving Target

First published: 1949

Type of work: Novel

Private detective Lew Archer’s search for a kidnapped oilman leads to the exposure of an alien smuggling operation.

The Moving Target is a quickly paced mystery-adventure novel filled with chases, fights, and murders which Macdonald described as “a story clearly aspiring to be a movie,” which it became: Harper, starring Paul Newman, in 1966. His fourth novel, it is a landmark in his career, marking as it does the debut of Lew Archer, a Los Angeles private detective patterned after Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, with whom Archer shares a sense of righteousness. Archer, however, is more introspective and realistic. Being the narrator, he becomes the moral center of the book.

Linked as the book is to the “hard-boiled” detective fiction tradition, Archer is challenged by several dangerous physical encounters with adversaries. In one struggle: “I clubbed the gun and waited. The first two got bloody scalps. Then they swarmed over me, hung on my arms, kicked my legs from under me, kicked consciousness out of my head. . . . I came to fighting. My arms were pinned, my raw mouth kissing cement.” In another encounter, “His fist struck the nape of my neck. Pain whistled through my body like splintered glass, and the night fell on me solidly again.” A bit later he overcomes his captor, they fall into the water struggling, and Archer kills the man in self-defense. (In later novels, Archer’s challenges become increasingly cerebral instead of physical, as he moves from his mid-thirties to middle age.)

With its Southern California setting and characters whom money, or the desire for it, corrupts, the novel anticipates the anti-acquisitiveness of later Macdonald books. At the very start, for example, Archer comes upon the oceanfront estates of Cabrillo Canyon and muses: “The light-blue haze . . . was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. . . . Private property: color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small.”

Though the plot is not as complex as those of later novels, it is multifaceted. The primary action, about the...

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