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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ross Macdonald had a firm ... ouch, scream, eeyii-oh!

"Mister, I seen 'em hard-boiled before - but you're - twenty minutes!" - Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole.

The word I always use for my favorite author of hard-boiled detective fiction, Ross Macdonald (ne Kenneth Millar), is "Wagnerian." Lew Archer (there is no one in Wagner like Archer, but how Wagner would have enjoyed it if there had been!) is always hired to solve some minor crime (a little swindle, an oil spill, a little murder, the theft of some letters), and he always turns up a long-lost ancient forgotten unsolved crime or faked identity or something else everyone kind of wishes he wouldn't bring up. It can go back twenty years. Thirty. And once he's on the case, he can't be stopped. You'd think someone would figure that out and shoot him early on. But they can't. He's narrating. And (unlike real life) it all ties together in the end.

Exploring the Gulag (my storage space on Vandam Street), because it simply must be emptied so I can put things there so I can live in an habitable apartment (song cue: Stephen Sondheim's "What More Do I Need?"), I came across a trove of Ross Macdonald mysteries. Macdonald is my favorite, preferred even to his partners-in-hardboiled-California-tec-dom, Hammett and Chandler, and to his splendid wife, Margaret Millar.

Of all mystery writers (not that I've read that many), my favorites are Sayers (great writing, though her murders are usually improbable at best), Edmund Crispin (splendidly roundabout and elegant), Sarah Caudwell (a lawyer and a witch and a lesbian to boot!), and Tony Hillerman. What - aside from excellent style - did they have in common? They created characters and societies. I'm intrigued by their alternate worlds. Agatha Christie, on the other hand, never created a believable character or a credible plot. And she's a terrible writer. Simenon I can't get into. I shall continue to try. Mickey Spillane - another terrible writer with unbelievable characters and the same repetitive plot. (Macdonald's plot also repeats, deriving from his own brutal childhood as he admitted, but he makes it seem less variations on a theme than a universal set of truths.) John Le Carre is a very good writer, and I like him when he's brief - but he's seldom brief.

I had just loaned (I think it was a loan; he may not agree) four of my favorite Macdonalds to a friend in Boston: The Chill, The Blue Hammer, The Goodbye Look, The Wycherly Woman. Hope I get them back eventually. But I only reread them about once a decade, which keeps the effect fresh. Often I'm halfway through a reread before I remember who done it. And among the trove, besides several whose plot I had forgotten (or was thrilled to revisit) was one I had not read before! I savored the opening sentence - did I know it? No. I savored the typical lurch into the case before someone hired Archer, never realizing he was going to search deeper than the hirer wanted. Not familiar. I savored the characters: typical. And Archer's seduction of each to get the info he wanted. The roundabout plot. The lost identity.

(It's her SISTER! I wanted to scream at him. We've been told she has a sister. If the girl isn't acting like the blackmailing slut you know she is, it's not your instinct that's wrong - it's your i.d. This is her SISTER! Archer figured it out, but only a day later. Never mind. My favorite Sayers is The Nine Tailors, and I figured out who the corpse was, and who had killed him, chapters before Lord Peter ever did. Even the emeralds were no surprise to me.)

It occurred to me I didn't even know which was the first Lew Archer novel. (It's The Moving Target, not one of the strongest, poorly filmed as Harper with giggly Paul Newman mis-playing melancholic Lew.) So I found a web site with ALL of Macdonald listed on it, in chronological order so I can deduce several trends as they rise and fall, and can pass along my recommendations to you. I have omitted most of the early and non-Archer ones, as I do not find them as enjoyable and often have not finished them. He took a couple of years to find his style, did our Ken (Ross), and this is no surprise. Even Mozart nodded, and his early works, extraordinary for a child, are nothing brilliant compared to any adult.

* The Moving Target (1949) - I will now reread this to see how Archer began his illustrious career.

* The Drowning Pool (1950) - One of the weakest of the series, inexplicably popular.

* The Way Some People Die (1951) - Some women just can't help driving men mad. Y'know? Lew is not yet forty and hates gangsters. (VERY GOOD)

* The Ivory Grin (1952) - Good appearance of the corpus delecti. Though I knew what it was long before Lew did. (VERY GOOD)

* Find a Victim (1954) - Unforgettable opening sentence. Femmes fatales, oversexed and undersexed, and the way a career in law enforcement eats the soul. The family romance in full Wagnerian throttle. (GOOD)

* The Barbarous Coast (1956) - I lost it at the movies. (GOOD)

* The Doomsters (1958) - I don't remember this one.

* The Galton Case (1959) - Famously the most autobiographical, the one where he stopped fending off the impulse to make fiction of his own story, it also has the wildest switcheroo plot, wherein nor Lew nor reader knows what to believe. (Neither do most of the other characters.) (TOP RATING)

* The Ferguson Affair (1960) - This is not a Lew Archer novel, but his replacement is very much up to the mark. Terrific plot. Mistaken identities proliferate. Old ghosts return to haunt. Hollywood is corrupt and so is money. (TOP RATING)

* The Wycherly Woman (1961) - More mistaken identities. I wasn't taken in, but I enjoyed Lew's ride. (VERY GOOD)

* The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) - Hippies are making Lew - and Ross - nervous. (GOOD)

* The Chill (1964) - Won all the prizes, wildest, most Wagnerian plot of all, what's a little incest as long as it's kept in the family? (TOP RATING)

* The Far Side of the Dollar (1965) - I forget this one, too, but will reread it.

* Black Money (1966) - Rather short, as though Ross (and Lew) were going through the motions. But a rather intriguing denouement all the same. (GOOD)

* The Instant Enemy (1968) - Another one I can't remember.

* The Goodbye Look (1969) - Terrific. Even remembering the details, I found I couldn't remember all the details. And when Archer, in a hospital bed, pretends to be asleep so the housekeeper who denied ever seeing the photograph before can sneak in and reclaim it joyously ... welcome to Archer-land. (TOP RATING)
This is also - I think - the first book in which he actually goes to bed with one of the attractive women who are always throwing themselves at him. Such is the zeitgeist of 1969, eh?

* The Underground Man (1971) - Another I've forgotten. Looking forward to it!

* Sleeping Beauty (1973) - This brings in another of Ken Millar's causes, conservation: An oil spill or two are at the bottom of the mystery. You're very tense as Lew races around California searching for - and just missing - the angry young woman he met in chapter one. Will she live long enough for him to save her? She didn't in a previous volume or two. Meanwhile, a little adultery never hurt any private eye we ever knew. (TOP RATING)

* The Blue Hammer (1976) - The last, and the man is still at the top of his game. Amazing how murdering one's half-brother can transform a painter's style ... or did it? And amazing how time can transform the painter's model. Wild and maelstromic plot. (TOP RATING)

They've reissued a lot of these, some of the best (The Chill) and some of the worst (The Drowning Pool). I can't guess the logic of it.