The Way Some People Die, by Ross MacDonald

August 26, 2007 at 11:30 am (Mystery fiction)

ross-macdonald.jpg What a pleasure it has been to return once more to the works of the great Ross MacDonald. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has recently re-issued two more of the Lew Archer novels, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin. One cannot say thank you enough to these fine small presses and specialty houses, who continue to make the best in classic and contemporary crime fiction available to compulsive consumers of the stuff like Yours Truly. (Hats off to the discriminating folks at Soho Crime and St. Martin’s Minotaur in particular. And keep your eye on the great new Felony & Mayhem Press!)

Anyway, back to Ross MacDonald. He writes in the hardboiled tradition, but he makes that tradition his own by gentling and humanizing his P.I. Lew Archer can be rueful and honest about his own failings, but those failings do not include faintness of heart. When he is on a a case he is like the proverbial puppy with a bedroom slipper in its teeth: there will be no letting go until the case is solved. It’s not just the pursuit of justice, it’s the pursuit of truth, even though more often the ultimate revelation of it makes him feel sick rather than free.

way-some-die.jpg This is particularly true of The Way Some People Die (1951). (Don’t you just love that cover, though – the way it screams, “Nyaaah!” right in your face!) As happens so often in detective work, the case begins with a missing person, in this instance a young woman named Galley Lawrence. Her distraught mother has hired Archer to locate her errant daughter, but as usual, things are not as they seem. MacDonald’s novels are characterized by an extreme economy of both plotting and language. Things get very complicated very quickly. If you have trouble following all the threads of the plot…well, don’t worry about it. I am usually fully occupied by my admiration for MacDonald’s terrific descriptions and set pieces; I know the plot will eventually come back into focus if I stick around. And it is no trouble to stick around; it is harder to pull away. This is largely due to MacDonald’s mesmerizing way with language.

Here, a bad guy has gotten the drop on Lew Archer: “A tall man in a wide-brimmed black hat emerged from the dark room. He was as thin as death. Hid face had a coffin look, skin drawn over high sharp cheekbones, a blue down-dragging mouth. His pale glistening eyes were on me, and so was his black gun.”

A pianist Archer encounters in a bar “…had the sad bad centerless eyes I expected, wormholes in a withered apple with a dark rotten core.”

MacDonald also excels at descriptions of places, particularly interiors – very particularly the interiors of the bars and low-rent eateries that his investigations inevitably take him to. Even in these dives, MacDonald/Archer sometimes finds a crude, sad poetry:

“The place had a cozy, subterranean quality, like a time capsule buried deep beyond the reach of change and violence. The fairly white-coated waiters, old and young, had a quick slack economy of movement surviving from a dead regretted decade. The potato chips that came with my sizzling steak tasted exactly the same as the chips I ate out of greasy newspaper wrappings when I was in grade school in Oklahoma in 1920. The scenic photographs that decorated the walls–Route of the Union Pacific–reminded me of a stereopticon I had found in my mother’s great-aunt’s attic. The rush and whirl of bar conversation sounded like history.”

Like Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald possesses a kind of savage wit that tends to ambush the reader by showing up where it’s least expected. Here’s a memorable tossed-off observation on a very prosaic subject: “Parking spaces in downtown Hollywood were as scarce as the cardinal virtues.”

In another scene, Archer is being grilled by a cop. Said cop demands of him: “‘Now what was that about an alibi?'” Here’s the next line: ” It struck me that vaudeville was dead.” Although thought rather than voiced, it is nevertheless a great comeback, one that had me grinning ear to ear.

These small moments of comic relief are a welcome blessing, because for the most part the business Lew Archer goes about is decidedly grim. MacDonald’s characters put me in mind of Yeats’s lines from “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Actually, looking at that poem again, it occurs to me that the line prior to those just quoted is even more apt: “The ceremony of innocence s drowned.” Even the knowing, cynical Lew Archer does not realize just how drowned that innocence is, innocence he wanted and needed to believe in, until this case reaches its bitter conclusion.

There is an issue in hardboiled fiction concerning the portrayal of female characters. They tend to be either simpletons, evil-minded seducers, compulsive liars, or some combination of all of the above. Of course, the same can be said of many of the men who drift in and out of these novels. Thing is, these books are primarily written by men .The P.I.’s these authors create are often wary of women and attracted to them at the same time. This makes them – the men, I mean – mistrustful, but one feels that it is actually themselves they don’t trust. Thus, they engage in a sort of a verbal dance with the woman in question, the famously snappy repartee that characterizes so much of the dialogue found in hardboiled fiction and film. By the time these attitudes had filtered down to Ross MacDonald by way of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, they had softened somewhat. And as MacDonald’s oeuvre progressed over the years, they softened still more. Women could be seen to share the same basic humanity as men, and the same failings and weaknesses as well. They are attractive to Archer not because they are seductive sirens, but because they are intelligent, decent, and good.

The Way Some People Die is an early entry in the Archer series, and while I admired it greatly, it is not necessarily the one I would recommend for a reader coming to the series for the first time. There’s a midpoint further along where MacDonald can be said to have truly come into his own as a novelist. wycherly.jpg chill.jpg The Wycherly Woman (1961), The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) and The Chill (1964), for instance, show him to be in full possession of his considerable powers. Zebra-Striped Hearse, with its scouring depiction of a man’s tormented relationship with his daughter, strikes very close to home where Ross MacDonald’s personal life is concerned. macdonald.jpg I recommend Tom Nolan’s 1999 biography, where the full story of MacDonald, his wife novelist Margaret Millar, and the troubled relationship they endured with their ill-fated daughter Linda was first fully revealed.

Few writers were as astute as MacDonald in depicting the material riches coupled with intellectual vacuity and moral bankruptcy that characterized Southern California during the postwar era. In the course of the Archer novels, one specific place becomes emblematic of the fallen world all around us, wherever we are, where it is such a struggle to live life in anything resembling a state of grace.

7 Comments

  1. Quotes for a Sunday « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] From The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald: […]

  2. The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Mystery fiction, books) I’ve already written fairly extensively about Ross MacDonald. (See The Way Some People Die.) And I just posted a quote from The Doomsters this past Sunday. But can I read a MacDonald novel […]

  3. compulsive CSP said,

    nice review… might give it a try.

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] B. Parker The Remains of an Altar – Phil Rickman The Chameleon’s Shadow – Minette Walters The Way Some People Die and The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross MacDonald Cold in Hand – John Harvey Monster in the Box, […]

  5. Kelly said,

    Thanks for the review. I agree that we owe a lot to the reprint publishers. (I’m a huge fan of Soho Crime as well.) I know they don’t make the big bucks the larger companies make, so I’m indebted to their commitment to bring us some of the vintage gems.

  6. Richard said,

    I agree with Kelly, though honestly I like this series of black & white photos a LOT less than most of the older painted covers. They lack any hint of warmth or mystery. I’ll take the covers from the 1950s and early 1960s any day.

  7. Prashant C. Trikannad said,

    Thanks for a very incisive review of both the book and its author. I have only read short stories by Ross Macdonald and I got the impression that his victims are often missing. I’ll have to read the novels to see if that holds true.

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