Novels of Ross Macdonald and Patricia Highsmith

Reading stories about crime plunges you straight into the genre wars. What do Sophocles, Dostoevsky and Faulkner have to do with Agatha Christie, Chester Himes or Elmore Leonard?

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More germane, what’s the difference between Highsmith and Macdonald, and Mickey Spillane?

The merger

The crime genre has undergone a remarkable transformation since the 1940s, and its values have affected those of mainstream fiction.

In the 40s it was mere pulp fiction, but, perhaps through the impact of film noir, it became modish, semi respectable. Dilettante writers and slumming academics wrote metaphysical thrillers about the meaning of life, or a thesis on Chandler’s relation to Dante;  Bogart and Camus in their different ways created a popular hero hitherto unknown; and university courses were set on popular fiction, and writers such as Hammett admitted into the canon.

Because of this development, you can take the novels of Macdonald and Highsmith on several levels.

On a narrative level, they wrote superb crime fictions. True to their genre, the characters were never quite real, and ‘solutions’ never quite believable, but the books are unputdownable.

But both writers examined crime in a way most genre authors didn’t. Why is there crime? Why are we the violent species? Why does wrong doing beget anger and retaliation? The reader can delve deeper into these fictions if they want to.

True, if you live outside southern California you can dismiss Macdonald’s picture of that society. That’s where all the oddballs live. But not many can read Highsmith and afterwards think of themselves as ‘normal’.

Ross Macdonald

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For 19th century audiences the value to be reinforced in a crime story might have been justice (or maybe just crowd control). But injustice looms larger for us. And injustice is, strange as it may seem, an internal value. We have injustice because we have guilt. In an age dominated by the thoughts of Freud, we must start with ourselves.

Although both Hammett and Chandler were recognised as good writers, irrespective of genre conventions they might have followed, it was Ross Macdonald who was seen as the first crime writer to excel in matter dealt within the mainstream novel; character, psychology, depiction of social milieu. Several of his books, such as The Zebra-Striped Hearse or The Galton Case, could have had the murder investigation removed and still been absorbing to read.

“My subject is something like this: human error, and the ambivalence of motive.” wrote Ross Macdonald, “My interest is the exploration of lives”. (in a letter to his publisher which quoted unfavourable criticism of one of his books – quoted in Tom Nolan’s biography, Scribner 1999).

Macdonald has this to say in The Doomsters of 1958. “I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones…

“I’ve pretty well got over thinking in terms of good and bad. Those categories often do more harm than – well, good. We use them to torment ourselves, and hate ourselves because we can’t live up to them. Before we know it, we’re turning our hatred against other people, especially the unlucky ones, the weak ones who can’t fight back. We think we have to punish somebody for the human mess we’re in, so we single out the scapegoats and call them evil.”

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Justice, he seems to be saying, breeds injustice. What we need is compassion for others’ troubles. And forgiveness for our own. Not an eye for an eye. Who wants a lot of eyes?

Macdonald had learnt in therapy that he had to forgive himself, and here was an insight that would have astonished Mickey Spillane for instance.

Not that Macdonald was a preacher. But in place of, say, Chandler’s startling metaphors, Macdonald (in the person of PI Lew Archer) has a strikingly non judgemental and usually a concise view of the troubled people he meets.

Of a woman married to a man she once idolised, but now drudging in a poor household with care of two small children while her husband has found another woman (and began a career of crime) Archer, to whom she has ineptly offered herself, says: “I gave her money, which she accepted, to take a taxi home. It was a friendly gesture, too friendly under the circumstances. But she looked at me as if I was abandoning her to a fate worse than life”. (Black Money 1966). In the final five words lurk an untold tragedy, a story of another Madame Bovary.

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Lew Archer comes to see that the sins of the father are indeed visited upon the heads of the children, or as we put it, abused children produce abusive parents, and over generations a psychic pattern of abuse is formed. Judging an abusive parent for their psychosis doesn’t solve the issue, as the child is still abused. The criminal is the victim of crime as well as its perpetrator, and why should we punish only one of the perpetrators and excuse others?

Hence a common element in Macdonald’s books is the crime which originated in an earlier crime of an earlier generation. Who is guilty? We are, as much as anyone. We commit the crime of omission, of letting wrong happen.

Macdonald offers an unforgettable picture of southern Californian life, and his crime dramas tip the lid to not only Dostoevsky, but Sophocles and Faulkner as well.

His faults stem from the tension he found in writing a mainstream novel in the crime fiction style. Villains straight from The Black Mask; violence often gratuitous; and impossibly elaborate conclusions that only confuse the reader, full of suddenly introduced characters, forgotten crimes, too convenient confessions.

But the troubled souls he explores in depth are beautifully done, and the real reason to read his books.

Patricia Highsmith

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Patricia Highsmith started as a comic book writer (as did Mickey Spillane). If Dashiell Hammett was the genius who inspired every writer in the field of crime fiction, while himself moving beyond it; Raymond Chandler was the writer who infused the crime genre with poetry; Ross Macdonald a novelist who happened to be working in the crime genre; then Mickey Spillane was “the poet laureate of sexual psychopathy” (Ross Macdonald).

What then was Patricia Highsmith? Graham Greene called her “the poet of apprehension”, but she is something much more disturbing than that.

Highsmith took the suspense novel, the crime novel, and simply removed the moral context. If Macdonald hesitates to condemn the psychotic who commits a crime, Highsmith takes us inside that psychotic’s mind and lets us see that murder is just one alternative to solving a problem. The psychotic may give his victim a present, or cut his throat, and he, or the reader, never quite knows what it is to be.

This stance is successful (more so than Spillane’s ‘I, the Jury’ approach) because she never attempts to justify it. All of a sudden her protagonist gets the Anthony Perkins, Psycho, look, and we experience the horror of a crime of violence.

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Its done through her writing style. Here’s the start of Deep Water (1957). “Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance. …Victor Van Allen was thirty-six years old, of a little less than medium height, inclined to a general firm rotundity rather than fat, and he had thick crisp brown eyebrows, thick and tenacious. His mouth was middle-sized, firm, and usually drawn down at the right corner…his blue eyes, wide, intelligent and unsurprisable, gave no clue as to what he was thinking or feeling”.

This is the plain style, in extreme form. Every word, and the attitudes depicted, is ordinary and understandable. Many men are outclassed on the dance floor by their wives, and they read on with a certain identification with a character who gradually becomes a decidedly odd, yet strangely impressive, one. Step by step we are lured into considering a murder as a good solution. Get rid of the wife’s partners and one won’t be embarrassed by a silly scene of jealousy.

Highsmith wants us to know we are all murderers, and we only have our cowardice to stop us.

That plain style, often disparaged by critics, entices the reader into her net. In many ways it echoes the simple sentences of Franz Kafka, who enmeshes us and his antihero in inexplicable difficulties and delays which also are life threatening. You could say Highsmith is a mid 20th century, American, Kafka.

Before Hannibal Lector and before the fascination with serial killers, transformed for television into vampires, Highsmith depicted killers like Tom Ripley, plausible, attractive, with absolutely no moral sense, who thought murder a convenient way to dispose of a difficulty.

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In a culture where armed men shoot and kill each other over driving offences, this became crime fiction of horrifying relevance, just as gang warfare was in the 30s and mob violence in the 40s.

Come on, Highsmith says. We’re all psychotic, all damaged, on gender lines, affluence lines, class lines, race lines. Whatever our situation, we know injustice, have always known it, always will. We all want to kill. Let’s find out what it’s like: read on.

It might be hard at first to see, but Macdonald and Highsmith are talking about the same thing, from two different perspectives, inside and outside the mind of individuals who have no cultural values except material ones, no morals except conspicuous ostentation and looking good, no idea of quality, only of quantity.

Aims

Writers have more pragmatic aims as well. Firstly, to sell lots of copies of their books. Their publishers had ventured capital and wanted a return, and the writers were poor and needed cash.

One tried and trusted technique is to modulate pacing and action so as to build suspense. This technique is behind every best seller, in whatever market. Will the lovers find each other by the final chapter? Will the stockbroker make his fortune? Will the vet cure the epidemic killing livestock in his remote village? It doesn’t really matter what the subject is. If it’s paced right, you feverishly turn the page. The writer has aroused your latent anxiety and you crave reassurance.

The crime novel seems ideal for this buildup and release of suspense; it is sometimes labelled suspense fiction. Its subject is the fight for justice. Or is it?

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The crime, have you noticed, is always murder. Death is a universal subject. We’re all going to die, and god is responsible and we’d like to bring him to justice but can’t. Crime fiction touches on our existential worries.

We think of god when reading the story of Oedipus. God made sure Oedipus would commit a crime of murder despite all his efforts to escape. Though perhaps getting into a scuffle and a killing, with a stranger he assumed was not his father, wasn’t good enough. But god, Apollo, had said he was going to kill his father, and he did. There is no escape. Death is there. It can’t be avoided.

For Dostoevsky this suggested injustice. He focused on helpless people, little children. If they suffered and died, something was seriously wrong. Dostoevsky was very devout, and the existence of apparently unjust suffering caused him great conflict. And so it should, because it is inexplicable. A child doesn’t deserve to die.

There is also a social context to consider. Faulkner looked at the poor farmers of the southern USA, white and black, and the strange fruit that the trees brought forth there, and couldn’t find a real culprit. His indecision was a courageous stand for that time and place, when his neighbours saw in simple black and white. Faulkner saw tradition, poverty, race, fear and pain going back for generations.

So to focus on justice seems understandable, even if it has to be restricted to human society. Those who break the law must be punished, and that is a convention behind crime fiction.

But right away a distinction has to be made between law, and morality. Once we pretended they were the same; now we seperate the two. The guilty can hire lawyers to make sure their crimes don’t break any laws. Corrupt or prejudiced police can make sure the law is only applied against disadvantaged groups. Criminals can bribe politicians to change laws.

More complex fictions look at the ambiguity of crime, and explore crime as guilt, as not the breaking of a law, but as a compulsion we are born with.

An earlier writer, Georges Simenon, felt the pull of both conventional morality and justice, and the guilt and violence of our psyches. He divided his fiction into police stories, where the criminal, often one he sympathised with, was handed over to justice; and psychological thrillers where his protagonist embarks on a crime of violence. Crime, he said, is a relationship, not an isolated act. Crime exists in some situations in potential, and we bring it about. There are criminals, and victims, murderers and murderees.

Genre

Macdonald and Highsmith are also expert at crime genre conventions and structure. Why have they stayed with the crime novel despite critics who have tried to nudge them into something more literary?

First, I imagine, is that the market for the crime novel is smaller but extremely enthusiastic, and fans go to extraordinary lengths to collect the works of their favourite author. For publishers it’s a matter of lower returns but a market easier to predict. For writers, once their name is known, readers stay loyal. It’s a surer if smaller income. In the general market anything can happen, best sellerdom and film options or an ignominious remainder sale.

Macdonald never published the mainstream novels he wanted to, neither did Highsmith. They were both dealing with matter of their own neurosis and neither could cope I think with the attempt to create from that neurosis. They fell back on a structure and in Macdonald’s case a figure, the PI, determined by the genre, in order to create.

It’s unlikely many will not know the fiction of Macdonald and Highsmith. If you don’t, read the following.

Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) 1915-1983, brilliant academic and expert on Coleridge, wrote 25 crime novels and a short story collection 1944-1976. Best novels all feature PI Lew Archer: Find a Victim (1954), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Wycherly Woman (1961), The Zebra Striped Hearse (1962), The Chill (1964), The Instant Enemy (1968).

Patricia Highsmith 1921-1995, in the first half of her career wrote 13 novels 1950-1969. Between 1970 and her death in 1995 she concentrated on macabre short stories and sequels to her novel The Talented Mr Ripley. Her early work is her best: Strangers on a Train (1950), Deep Water (1957), A Game for the Living (1958), The Cry of the Owl (1962), The Two Faces of January (1964), The Tremor of Forgery (1969).

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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