Ross Macdonald Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis - Essay

Ross Macdonald Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ross Macdonald began his career with two spy novels: The Dark Tunnel, written in only one month while he was taking courses for his doctorate, and Trouble Follows Me (1946), which he completed on board ship while serving in the navy. His third and fourth books, Blue City (1947) and The Three Roads (1948), in which he turned to the hard-boiled style, were written in Santa Barbara in a nine-month span after his discharge. Together, these four novels constitute Macdonald’s apprenticeship. They are marred by overwriting and other flaws, but they served their purpose, allowing him to establish himself as a professional writer.

The Detective Hero

Macdonald found his voice with his fifth novel, The Moving Target (1949). It is no accident that this key book was the first to feature private investigator Lew Archer: With Archer as narrator, Macdonald was able to deepen and humanize the form he had inherited from Hammett and Chandler. In his analytical awareness of what he was doing as a writer and how he was doing it, Macdonald was quite exceptional, and his essays and occasional pieces, collected in Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past (1981), remain the best guide to his work. In his essay “The Writer as Detective Hero,” he sketches the history of the detective story and discusses his contribution to the genre via the character of Archer.

The focus of the essay, as its title suggests, is on the complex relationship between fictional detectives and their creators, from Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Hammett’s Sam Spade and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. In Macdonald’s view, the central purpose of the detective story is to provide an “imaginative arena” in which troubling realities can be confronted “safely, under artistic controls.” The fictional detective, Macdonald suggests, is a projection of the author, a mediating figure by means of which the writer is able to “handle dangerous emotional material.” Early detectives such as Dupin and Holmes enact the triumph of reason over the “nightmare forces of the mind” (although in Poe’s stories, Macdonald notes, there remains a “residue of horror”). Sam Spade, the archetypal hard-boiled detective, is a much more realistic character, yet his creator deprives him of the ability to make sense of his experience—and thereby denies him full humanity. Marlowe is gifted with a richer sensibility, at once ironic and lyrical, yet there is a strong vein of romanticism in his portrayal.

Macdonald’s Lew Archer has something in common with all these predecessors, yet he differs from them as well:Archer is a hero who sometimes verges on being an antihero. Although he is a man of action, his actions are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge. This gradually developed conception of the detective hero as the mind of the novel is not wholly new, but it is probably my main contribution to this special branch of fiction.

With this passage, Macdonald’s title, “The Writer as Detective Hero,” gains added resonance. Macdonald, the writer, is a kind of private investigator; Archer, the detective, is a poet, perceiving hidden connections. Both writer and detective are in the business of “putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance.” Indeed, in many of the novels, Archer explicitly identifies the impulse that keeps him going, nowhere more forcefully than in The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), when, in response to a skeptical question (“Why does it matter?”), he states his credo: “Life hangs together in one piece. Everything is connected with everything else. The problem is to find the connections.”

As Macdonald acknowledges, this altered conception of the detective hero (and, thereby, the detective novel)...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)