Crime, Punishment and Compassion

A lone man walks down a dark and seedy LA street at three am, and pushes open the scarred and dingy door of a dilapidated rooming house. The night clerk dozes behind a desk, a playboy magazine unleashing a centrefold whose splendour enriches his furtive dreams. The man is tall, muscular, distinguished looking, out of place yet somehow belonging in this half world of misfits. He’s looking for a man, a guest at the rooming house, a could be murderer. The night clerk tells him the fugitive’s room number and he registers a room himself. The man suddenly remembers he hasn’t slept in 24 hours, nor eaten in over 12. He signs the register. The name is Lew Archer.

I’ve been rereading the books of Ross Macdonald, often considered the best of American crime writers. I enjoyed reading them many years ago, and concurred then that his reputation was deserved, but this time around I have become much more aware of both his strengths and his shortcomings as a writer in the genre.

Crime novels externalise guilt and place it on a criminal who is finally detected and punished. Ross Macdonald’s books start with a criminal, discover that many people share in the guilt of a crime, and end with the consideration that Archer the protagonist, Macdonald the author and we the reader might all of us be partners in crime.

The most influential crime writer of all after Conan Doyle was undoubtedly Raymond Chandler, who, together with Dashiell Hammett, rescued the genre from the crossword puzzle ingenuity it had devolved to, based on and derived from an aspect of Sherlock Holmes’ deductive methods. Chandler restored another aspect of the Holmes stories in his own writing, that of the flawed, complex investigator motivated by idealism and a sense of justice. Chandler, though, was a flawed writer. His books were poorly plotted, and where he relied on character he too often descended to stereotype. He was well aware of his own defects, being, as well as a very accomplished stylist, a very perceptive critic. The Philip Marlowe books start with The Big Sleep (1939), one of the best crime novels ever written, but they quickly deteriorated, as Chandler succumbed to his crippling sense of failure, and to alcoholism. Probably the best thing Chandler wrote after The Big Sleep was Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962), a selection of his letters and criticism. Hollywood wasn’t good for him, and his last three books were as ineffective as his screenplays.

Ross Macdonald’s great achievement was to build up a coherent, convincing picture, realised in 24 novels over the period 1944-1976, of Los Angeles, a territory he inherited from Chandler, as a seedy, splendid and sordid crime capital in America, populated by hoods, corrupt cops and rich people with something to hide. In this world PI Archer finds that guilt is all around, that secrets corrupt, and that often money costs a lot more than it’s worth.

He created something of a character, too, in his detective, Lew Archer. Archer, like Marlowe, is too much a deus ex machina to be a fully realised character, yet his lonely, cynical nature, failed marriage and weakness for young women are in accord with the cases and people he investigates. He does more than solve crimes. He studies, and lives vicariously, the lives of his clients, he feels their fear, is burdened with their guilt.
Ross Macdonald was Kenneth Millar (1915-83), born and buried in California but raised and living in Canada. He relocated to California after the war. He was married to another crime writer, Canadian Margaret Millar. Like Chandler, Macdonald started writing for pulp magazines in the forties. He was very influenced by Chandler, and by Dashiell Hammett. The writer he admired most of all, and tried to emulate, was Scott Fitzgerald. Macdonald’s first stories date from a time when Chandler was in Hollywood, after the publication of four well received crime novels, and his detective Lew Archer began as a homage to Philip Marlowe. Both writers created the portrait of LA we’ve seen in a thousand subsequent TV series, corrupt and violent, where the cops aren’t that different from the hoods.

Chandler was a self proclaimed poor plotter, but Ross Macdonald could be as ingenious as Agatha Christie (a writer whom Chandler deplored). Georges Simenon focused on the psychopathology of obsessed characters, and evolved the theory that as well as murderers, there were murderees. Read a Maigret novel and you are inside the mind of someone driven to murder. Lew Archer finds out more about the social origins of crime. Macdonald scratched the tinsel of LA, and found there was tinsel underneath, that where people looked good they very often felt bad. As well as following the conventions of the crime novel, Ross Macdonald was very much a social critic and portrayist.

My choice of the best of the novels, the ones I liked the most, would be:
The Drowning Pool 1950
Find A Victim 1954
The Barbarous Coast 1956
The Wycherly Woman 1961
The Zebra-Striped Hearse 1962
The Chill 1964
The Instant Enemy 1968
Sleeping Beauty 1973
There are three or four nearly as good, only one or two I would categorise as bad.

A family called Slocum are being blackmailed in The Drowning Pool. But it’s not as simple as that. Mrs Slocum has a dilettante husband with ambitions as an actor who seems more attracted to the man who writes plays for him. Her mother-in-law owns oil rich lands she refuses to sell to the oil company in Quinto who have devastated the neighbouring countryside. Her daughter may be carrying on a relationship with a man suspected of murder. There’s a murder, then another. Archer is in trouble with the police. This is how the novel starts. It’s an ingeniously plotted thriller that gets you turning the pages to find out what happens, but it’s more about people Macdonald makes you take an interest in, developing characters who are much more than pegs to hang a plot on.

Right from the start of his career, Macdonald is writing far more detail than is usual in a crime novel. He’s interested in how characters relate to one another even when they’re not involved in the murder investigation. Characters with walk on parts are just as detailed as the main protagonists. Marriages in particular are finely delineated, with all their shifting loyalties and resentments. There is a good deal of autobiography in this: Macdonald was to draw on his own life for details of his characters’ right through his writing career.

Superb plotter that he was, Macdonald’s skill with plotting led to his few failures, books denoueing with too many coincidences, dovetailing explanations relying on the murderer proving to be mad, for instance, when there had been no sign of it before the end of the book. What he does elsewhere, in the great majority of his books, is an extraordinary achievement, one I think no other writer can match. Macdonald merges two genres, the novel and the thriller: he writes thrilling, suspenseful novels (or character rich thrillers).

An oil spill dominates Sleeping Beauty, Macdonald’s penultimate novel, both as crisis affecting the lives of the Lennox family, and as metaphor for what happens when Archer uncovers a crime committed long ago, during the second world war. The ingenious plot is fascinating to follow, but Archer seems more concerned with the plight of the young Lennox daughter, bought up in a family that was more of a facade, and the damage to the environment.

By Sleeping Beauty Ross Macdonald had evolved the structure underlying many of his later works. Archer is hired to find a missing person, often someone’s errant child. He uncovers a murder, and learns of a link to an unsolved crime of many years before. Despite his employers’ unease, Archer investigates the earlier crime, and uncovers the lies that superficially successful lives have been built on. Archer is engaged with his characters. He has himself experienced the anger and confusion that can drive a young man to violence. He is still suffering the guilt of a broken marriage while looking at the deceit that holds together the marriages of his clients. And Archer, like Macdonald, becomes more and more concerned about environmental issues. This city of LA, with its squalor, bad taste, crime, its guilt, luxury and natural beauty, is a place he loves.

A final point. Macdonald’s novels are a cumulative experience. The works as a whole are more than the sum of their parts, good as individual titles may be. In this respect they are miles apart from most thrillers, where readers want, and if they’re lucky get, more of the same, another dose of the same exciting experience. In Macdonald’s books, Archer grows older, becomes more thoughtful and more concerned. In LA the problems become impacted. Corruption in politics leads to alliances with underworld figures, dubious business deals, police corruption; relentless accumulation of wealth is associated with crime, deceit, addiction and the kind of neglect that blights lives. Gradually Archer achieves a kind of insight of how it’s all connected, the deceit, the guilt and the glitter, and who can say how wrong he might be.

I’ve mentioned three great writers of crime novels, and three great writers who wrote crime novels. Christie, Hammett and Chandler are among the most popular and admired writers in the genre; but there’s no denying Georges Simenon, Conan Doyle and Ross Macdonald are major novelists. I suppose because the subject is LA, I wonder if Ross Macdonald created the environment for James Ellroy to write crime novels rather than books comparable to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.

The Dark Tunnel (aka I Die Slowly) – 1944 (by Kenneth Millar)
Trouble Follows Me (aka Night Train) – 1946 (by Kenneth Millar)
Blue City – 1947
The Three Roads – 1948
•The Moving Target (filmed as Harper) – 1949***
•The Drowning Pool (filmed under that title) – 1950*****
•The Way Some People Die – 1951****
•The Ivory Grin (aka Marked for Murder) – 1952****
Meet Me at the Morgue (aka Experience With Evil) – 1953
•Find a Victim – 1954*****
•The Barbarous Coast – 1956*****
•The Doomsters – 1958***
•The Galton Case – 1959***
The Ferguson Affair – 1960
•The Wycherly Woman – 1961*****
•The Zebra-Striped Hearse – 1962*****
•The Chill – 1964*****
•The Far Side of the Dollar – 1965**
•Black Money – 1966***
•The Instant Enemy – 1968*****
•The Goodbye Look – 1969****
•The Underground Man – 1971***
•Sleeping Beauty – 1973*****
•The Blue Hammer – 1976***

Short Stories
•The Name is Archer (paperback original containing 7 stories) – 1955
•The Name is Archer (+ 2 additional stories) – 1977
•The Archer Files (all 12 stories and 11 Case Notes) – 2007**

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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