Ross Macdonald Essay - Macdonald, Ross

Macdonald, Ross

Macdonald, Ross 1915–

Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar. An American detective story writer and creator of Lew Archer, Macdonald is the author of many novels, including The Goodbye Look and The Underground Man, and, most recently, Sleeping Beauty. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

A few years ago Ross Macdonald wrote a series of stunning psychodramas that still remain generally neglected: The Galton Case, The Wycherly Woman, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. But subsequent books fell into repetition of these successes, and now the latest, Black Money, sets out to do something different. It begins—and few writers create the sense of starting out as well as Ross Macdonald—with what seems a standard tale about the way underworld money corrupts the respectably wealthy, and proceeds to show how Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald's private detective, wrongly assumes, as if because he watched too much television, that when you find the underworld king you solve the case. Archer has the rug neatly pulled out from under him—the solved case leaves everything unsolved—but then, author and hero, sadly, have nothing left except shreds of a wornout tangle and some not very clearly articulated anti-academic biases. Someone coming to Ross Macdonald first via Black Money, then, has every right to feel he is only another private eye novelist. But those who know this curiously modest and pretentious writer can still invoke his entire career and say he may be started on something new.

Roger Sale, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1966, pp. 127-28.

The plot [of "The Underground Man"] is intricate, involuted, and complicated to the hilt; and this, as I see it, is the novel's point. The danger derives from the fairy tales into which people make their lives. In lonely, fearful, or confused minds, real-life facts can become rarefied into private fantasies. And when intensity is accepted—welcomed—as the measure of truth, how can the real and the fabricated be told apart?…

[It] is the character of [Lew] Archer, whose first-person narrative forms all Mr. Macdonald's novels, that makes [the case] matter to us. Archer from the start has been a distinguished creation; he was always an attractive figure and in the course of the last several books has matured and deepened in substance to our still greater pleasure. Possessed even when young of an endless backlog of stored information, most of it sad, on human nature, he tended once, unless I'm mistaken, to be a bit cynical. Now he is something much more, he is vulnerable. As a detective and as a man he takes the human situation with full seriousness. He cares. And good and evil both are real to him.

Archer knows himself to be a romantic, would call it a weakness—as he calls himself a "not unwilling catalyst" for trouble; he carries the knowledge around with him—that's how he got here. But he is in no way archaic. He is at heart a champion, but a self-questioning, often a self-deriding champion. He is of today, one of ours. "The Underground Man" is written so close to the nerve of today as to expose most of the apprehensions we live with.

In our day it is for such a novel as "The Underground Man" that the detective form exists. I think it also matters that it is the detective form, with all its difficult demands and its corresponding charms, that makes such a novel possible. What gives me special satisfaction about this novel is that no one but a good writer—this good writer—could have possibly brought it off. "The Underground Man" is Mr. Macdonald's best book yet, I think. It is not only exhilaratingly well done; it is also very moving.

Ross Macdonald's style, to which in large part this is due, is one of delicacy and tension, very tightly made, with a spring in it. It doesn't allow a static sentence or one without pertinence. And the spare, controlled narrative, built for action and speed, conveys as well the world through which the action moves and gives it meaning, brings scene and character, however swiftly, before the eyes without a blur. It is an almost unbroken series of sparkling pictures.

The style that works so well to produce fluidity and grace also suggests a mind much given to contemplation and reflection on our world. Mr. Macdonald's writing is something like a stand of clean, cool, well-branched, well tended trees in which bright birds can flash and perch. And not for show, but to sing. A great deal of what this writer has to tell us comes by way of beautiful and audacious similes.

Eudora Welty, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1971, pp. 1, 28-30.

If publicity and good reviews were sure signs, you could consider Ross Macdonald a shoo-in for the next National Book Award in fiction. After all, no other American novelist has had quite so good a press this year. And none for quite some time has been treated with such solemn respect as this writer of detective stories whose enthusiastic admirers insist that his are more than just mysteries and are equal at least to some of the best "serious" fiction now being published in America….

[Lew] Archer [,his detective,] is a masterful creation, the kind of likeable protagonist that most of us secretly believe every novel ought to have. What sort of man is he? He is tough and very much his own man: When Maude Slocum makes the mistake of calling him her "employee" in The Drowning Pool, he sets her straight and defines their relationship neatly, saying, "It might help you … if you thought of me as a independent contractor." Yet not too independent, for he cares deeply about those with whom he becomes embroiled….

[In] many ways, there is no more contemporary protagonist around than Lew Archer. He is street wise. He knows all the cons. He is a man so well covered by protective layers of irony and ambiguity that he is himself almost impervious to those wounds of the spirit that he is called on to examine—and sometimes treat—in the course of his investigations. Almost impervious. Yet in this, as in so much else, he is not just "of today," but a part of that tradition of hard-boiled California detective heroes that began with Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and continued strong through Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The character of Lew Archer, in fact, derives directly from Chandler's hero, whom his creator describes as the man of honor "who must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."

In praising Ross Macdonald for his style, Eudora Welty singles out precisely what Raymond Chandler [Macdonald's literary hero] objected to, calling attention Macdonald's "beautiful and audacious similes," citing examples from his latest novel that would have sent Chandler right up the wall. Thus with Miss Welty as with so many of his admirers: and in this way, Ross Macdonald has managed to capture for himself precisely the audience that he coveted when he turned from "serious" fiction to the writing of detective stories. As it stands today, he is read with slightly less enthusiasm by regular readers of mystery and suspense novels than by those who feel the genre slightly beneath them. These latter like to feel that in Macdonald they have found their kind of writer, one who can write their kind of prose.

There is also a certain literary snobbism apparent in the enthusiasm among "serious" readers for the "mythic quality" of Ross Macdonald's work. It has that, all right; the only trouble is that it is with one myth only that he is concerned almost exclusively—that of Oedipus, the father-slayer who cohabited with his mother. The basic plot that he has reverted to again and again in his novels is the search for the father; and the hidden sin that often lurks just beneath the surface, implied but never spoken, is incest….

He seems to be rewriting the same novel over and over again. This may in one way be excusable, for the basic plot has proved a good one, and using it, he has done some of his best books. The Chill, The Instant Enemy, The Far Side of the Dollar are all fine novels, peopled with believable characters and moving along with the sense of urgency that Macdonald always manages to impart when he is working at top form.

But more and more he has been beset by difficulties in his writing. As his plots continue to move backward in time and through the generations, they have also lately become rather baroque in their development—terribly involuted and complicated. Yet not truly baroque, for there is not much perfection of form here. As plot complications increase, he becomes more slapdash on details. There are a number of plot gaps in The Goodbye Look, difficulties of motivation and the relationship of characters that are never satisfactorily dealt with in the resolution. And as they grow intricate, they depend more and more on coincidence and Archer's hunches to move them along…. And finally, Ross Macdonald has lately become altogether too cute in his choice of murderers…. Macdonald seems perverse in his determination to hand it back again to the kind of garden party murderers who slew with such ingenuity and grace in the novels of S. S. Van Dine and Dorothy Sayers. Lew Archer has become the scourge of little old lady murderers up and down the California coast….

[When] a novel has all these faults, and a few more that the author has devised for the occasion, it must, however regretfully, be judged a failure. And The Underground Man is that, a failure. In many ways it is his worst novel to date….

[In The Underground Man] Ross Macdonald manages to violate just about every writing rule of the detective novel genre. There are plot gaps, coincidences, and a rather questionable motivation for the murders. And for the first time, too, Macdonald's pacing is off. He seems to have lost—temporarily, I hope—his good ear for dialogue. But that's not the worst of it. The resolution of the mystery becomes so complicated as revelation follows discovery, that in his explanation, he asks us to believe that when Stan Broadhurst's father was murdered up on the hilltop behind his home, there were eight people around (and a piece of earth-moving equipment, no less, brought in to dispose of the body). These eight, all of whom knew something about the murder, had conflicting interests in the matter but nevertheless kept silence for fifteen years until Lew Archer came along and got them talking. I find this incredible—literally—that is, I don't believe it.

For years, probably since he began writing his Lew Archer mysteries, Ross Macdonald has felt constricted by the detective novel, thought himself (to put it rudely) too "good" for it, a prince of a writer in a poorhouse of a genre. All right, let him break out of it. Let him write his novels now, as Kenneth Millar, if he wishes. Better that than mangling the form further.

Bruce Cook, "Ross Macdonald: The Prince in the Poorhouse," in Catholic World, October, 1971, pp. 27-30.

There are, of course, differences of style among American mystery story writers. [Ross] Macdonald's characters, for example, are more credible than Chandler's because they are more ordinary, or less bizarre. Chandler is often on the verge of surrealism, of tragi-comic slapstick: his people are grotesque, manic, hilariously sad. Chandleresque is close to Chaplinesque. The novels of Macdonald and Chandler have, nevertheless, the same flaw: the only person in them whose motives remain somewhat mysterious, or exempt from exposure by vulnerable gestures, is the detective….

In Ross Macdonald's novels the chief victim is usually a child who needs protection from the father or society and gets it from Mother as overprotection—which is equally fatal. Enter the dick who tries to save the child and purge the Mother. Children are always shown as so imprisoned by the grownup world that they can't deal with things as they are; and so the child remains a "sucker." There is often little difference between family and police in this respect.

Geoffrey Hartman, "The Mystery of Mysteries," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), May 18, 1972, pp. 31-4.

Amidst the decay the sense of evil conveyed by Macdonald's 'villains' blurs the edges of the conventional thriller's sharp moral definition: it arouses compassion for the distraught, the mentally sick, and for the confused and messy rearing of children by their parents. In the conventional thriller the villain takes the blame. In Macdonald's the blame is spread very wide indeed, across a whole section of society…. The execution of [the] whodunit plot in a context of sickening social desperation is what makes Macdonald's achievement exceptional.

Reg Gadney, "Criminal Tendencies-1," in London Magazine, June-July, 1972, pp. 110-22.