The 1950s collection came out in April of last year; the second volume, in April of this year. Critics and readers alike mostly agree that the MacDonald attained the high point of his creativity in the sixties. This does not mean that the earlier books are any less worthwhile. I’ve read all seven of the above titles and more, and I freely admit that it’s hard for me to be impartial on the subject of Ross MacDonald.
The Archer novels are a potent mix of culture, crime and psychological motivation, the kinds of stories you have to sit with for a while after you finish them, just because they are so good, because they say something ineffable about the human condition.
[“Why you should get reacquainted with the mystery novelist Ross MacDonald,” by Mary Ann Gwinn, in the Seattle Times, July 27 2016]
The first Lew Archer that I ever read was The Zebra-Striped Hearse.
It is still one of my two or three favorites. I’ve subsequently reread it twice for book group discussions. As is usual with MacDonald, the plot is complex and twisty – I actually created a flow chart in order to keep the various developments straight.
But the writing – ah, the writing…
The striped hearse was standing empty among other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.
MacDonald excels at writing dialog; it’s what his novels mainly consist of. Description of characters conveys much in few words:
We sat in close silence, listening to each other breathe. I was keenly aware of her, not so much as a woman, but as a fellow creature who had begun to feel pain. She had lost her way to the happy ending and begun to realize the consequences of the sealed-off past.
The fateful exposure of that past is what many of MacDonald’s novels are about.
The appearance of the Library of America volumes has occasioned several appreciative essays in the review media. In the Seattle Times article cited above, Mary Ann Gwinn goes on to enumerate the reasons she cherishes MacDonald’s works:
• [His] immersion in the glittering highs and the dark lows of Hollywood film culture — wishful, wayward starlets, manipulative movie executives, performers with rampant egos whose descendants still clog the airwaves today.
• P.I. Lew Archer’s sturdy, if romantic heart. “The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them,” he concluded in “The Barbarous Coast.” Indeed.
• A mercifully low level of violence, though there is gunplay, a few beatings and one death-by-knitting-needle.
…in fully embracing the observer nature of the fictional private eye, Macdonald refined the genre to the point where it became a rich and fascinating comment upon itself. This endears his books to critics and other intellectual types who like to think about such things. More important, it gives his stories a vitality and depth that keep them readable and relevant more than 50 years after they were written.
“A Passion for Mercy” by Tobias Jones in The Guardian is itself beautifully written and studded with shrewd observations:
Over a series spanning 18 novels, Archer became something paradoxical: a memorable character about whom the reader knows next to nothing, the man with the punchy one-liners who is actually a good listener. Macdonald once wrote of his famous creation that he was “so narrow that when he turns sideways he almost disappears”. The thinness was deliberate because Macdonald wanted his detective to be like a therapist, a man whose actions “are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance. He is … a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.”
From Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal’s crime fiction reviewer and biographer of Ross MacDonald:
“All the household-name mystery writers since the 1970s in a sense owe their careers to his crossover onto mainstream-fiction bestseller lists; he paved the way for Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman and dozens of others. And he set an artistic standard that many authors still aspire to.”
Eudora Welty’s review of The Underground Man appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review in 1971:
”Ross Macdonald’s style 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.”
(In the post prior to this one, I mentioned that Helene, one of my oldest and dearest friends, many years ago recommended A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. It was a book that should have worked for me but didn’t. This same friend it was who gave me The Zebra-Striped Hearse.)
Sue Grafton, a longtime admirer of the Lew Archer novels, contributed the introduction to Tom Nolan’s biography:
“If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.”