September 17, 2017


Ross Macdonald, True Detective : The '50s noir novelist investigated sources of rot in the American grain. (NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF, September 15, 2017, New Republic)

While The Moving Target is not included in the Library of America reissue, Archer's brash proclamation midway through the novel--"I'm the new-type detective"--goes some way toward explaining how Macdonald earned his place among our greatest novelists. As Archer drives through fogged-in hills with a young woman, she asks him why he does detective work. Because he's attracted to danger? Archer's reply defines the moral outlook of Macdonald's detective. While danger gives Archer a sense of power, he tells her, the true appeal lies in watching people closely enough that they reveal themselves:

When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop's job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn't so simple. Everybody has it in him, and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things. Environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend. The trouble is a cop has to go on judging people by rule of thumb, and acting on the judgment.

Whereas Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe stride through worlds that exist as their own spotlit stages, the new-type detective looks outward, tries to locate flickers of meaning in the vast gloom around him. These are stories where the detective doesn't just discover what happened to a missing person. He reveals what makes a person feel lost--the perverse and tawdry elements that define people as castoffs in a skewed American landscape. [...]

Macdonald named Lew Archer in homage to Sam Spade's murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon, and gave him a backstory. Archer worked for five years on the Long Beach police force before quitting for the sake of his integrity. As he explains in 1950's The Drowning Pool: "There were too many cases where the official version clashed with the facts I knew." A world-weary crusader with no real friends we ever meet, Archer lives in middle-class West Los Angeles, never getting over the wife who left him, still making payments on an underpowered Ford, wearing plain California suits. He charges a daily fee and expenses, though he has an aversion to collecting them, as though taking money will implicate and "declass" him; he loathes the rich and says he is, "like most Americans," a counterpuncher. A good day begins with a rare steak and a barbershop shave. Sometimes it finishes kissing another man's unhappy wife. Archer prefers clear-eyed women who have been through enough disappointment themselves that they won't make any claims on a solitary, unattainable romantic. He is haunted by boyhood memories of holding his father's hand in the Long Beach surf.

Macdonald was no less skilled a user of language than Chandler or Hammett. An aging woman "still wore hopeful white ruffles at her wrist and throat," and the coastal sea has "a used dishwater color." The abandoned husband Alex Kincaid in The Chill has "that clean, crewcut All-American look, and the blur of pain in his eyes." Macdonald's 1958 description of a street boy as "a feather in a vacuum" was perhaps appreciated by John Updike, who two years later described Ted Williams as "a feather caught in a vortex." As to that repellent case of acne, all metaphor men have their moments of excess, and Chandler, who gave a carpet "a Florida suntan" and made teeth "white as fresh orange pith," was far from immune.

Part of the thrill of the Archer books is Archer's great gift for self-scrutiny, the way he can monitor his own internal fluctuations--"I was feeling sweaty and cynical"--in parallel to his penetrating assessments of others. Archer's ambivalence about everything, most of all himself, makes his insight credible. His unattainable aspiration is to be a good man. "I keep trying, when I remember to," he confesses in The Barbarous Coast, "but it keeps getting tougher every year. Like trying to chin yourself with one hand." In 1958's The Doomsters, the book Macdonald wrote after his only child, Linda, fell into serious trouble with the law, Archer sits in a cheap hotel room and feels a stab of pain and loss: "Perhaps the pain was for myself; the loss was of a self I had once imagined." When thinking about crime and criminals, Archer never forgets that he, like Macdonald, is someone who could have gone either way in life.

Only the Western is nearly as American.
Posted by at September 17, 2017 8:33 AM