July 15, 2017


Gatsby as noir: The genesis of Ross Macdonald's Black Money. : Spoiler alert: Nolan's essay reveals several critical details of the book's plot. So if you haven't already read Black Money, we recommend you do so right away and then come back and enjoy Nolan's illuminating commentary on one of Macdonald's most multilayered narratives. (Tom Nolan, 7/14/17, Library of America)

Another key element in the composition of Black Money was the 1925 F. Scott Fitzgerald work The Great Gatsby, which serves as a sort of phantom template for this and a few other Macdonald novels, especially The Galton Case.

"Yes, Gatsby hangs over my work," Macdonald acknowledged to literary scholar Peter Wolfe, "its blessing and its curse, particularly over Black Money. But [that book is] saved for originality by embracing the Latin cultures, the U[niversity] culture, etc."

Much of Black Money takes place among the residents of a college community--a mere two books after Macdonald's masterly The Chill (1964), another novel with an academic setting. As informed a view of university life as that work had given, Macdonald's English-poet friend Donald Davie had faulted The Chill for what he perceived as its somewhat dated feel: he thought the book drew on Millar's recollections of his alma mater the University of Michigan in the 1940s and '50s rather than detective Lew Archer's present-day perceptions of a 1960s Southern California school.

Macdonald took such comments to heart. When his critic-friend Hugh Kenner suggested in the '50s that first-person narrator Lew Archer was a bit too good a character to be true-to-life, the disgruntled author in time presented Kenner with the manuscript of a Macdonald novel which included a visit to a private detective (not Archer) much less forthright and compelling than his series hero: this, Macdonald claimed, was Archer seen from the outside. It's possible Black Money's contemporary campus setting was in part a response to Davie's critique. Macdonald took pains this time to portray an up-to-date institution: he did research at another poet-friend Henri Coulette's place of employment, L.A. State College.

His campus characters became crucial to the novel's plot and mood. "[F]or the first time," Macdonald told journalist Paul Nelson, "I was able to get a peculiar semi-tragic atmosphere about a kind of contemporary love affair which was fated--not really tragic; I mean the love affair between the professor and the girl. I was the witness of a love affair which resembled it in some ways, had been privy to what went on, and while I'm not writing about actual people, I tried to get the feeling of a fated and ultimately tragic contemporary love affair into my book. . . .

"[Black Money] seems to me to be the broadest expression of whatever sensibility I have, that I've written in a single book. . . . Sensibility is something I value, and I'm not always good at conveying it. But I felt the book came off, in a kind of original way, and had quite an original plot, in spite of its broad comparability to Gatsby."

The private eye novel--along with the Western--is the great American form and MacDonald's Lew Archer books were its pinnacle.
Posted by at July 15, 2017 8:28 AM