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If contemplating the politics of despair has left you a little ill in mind and heart, if you crave a measure of vicarious escape, I do not direct you to the series of fourteen novels Ross MacDonald has written about Los Angeles private detective Lew Archer. That would be a bit too much like presenting a presurgical patient with Gray's Anatomy by way of light reading.
Since the publication of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest on February 1, 1929, the best crime novels have not offered much in the way of escape or solid, mindless entertainment. Nowadays, even the casual student of the American pathologies, public and private, may find the fiction of mayhem crucially disturbing and very much worth the reading. The worst examples of the genre present the symptoms of our virulent malady in pure form, and a new Mickey Spillaine is not pleasant going, precisely because it has roughly the same significance as a fresh mass murder. The best books of the type offer symptomology, diagnosis, and like most good physicians (and all great works of art), a tentative prescription for treatment. Among living crime novelists, Ross MacDonald is simply the best of the best.
In 1946 MacDonald, newly discharged from the Navy and beginning a career as a novelist, was casting about for a form. That year, long before he created Lew Archer, he produced two books which, their considerable merits aside, are valuable as indicators of his early concern with themes and fictional modes which dominate his later writing. Blue City is an ultra-tough, gut-wrenching narrative of personal vengeance, distinguished by a flexible and convincing use of vernacular speech, a sound knowledge of the impact produced on a human body by objects of diverse shape and size, and a vision of American life in which obsessive violence is not a chance phenomenon but an invariable condition. The Three Roads, a thriller about an amnesiac's torturous investigation of a murder he may well have committed himself, establishes MacDonald's interest in detailed and accurate psychological observation, and his regard for the complex reverberations of a guilty past in an uncertain present.
A statement of the limitations of MacDonald's earliest books only makes it easier to take the measure of his later achievement. Novels like Find a Victim (1954), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Galton Case (1959), The Zebra Striped Hearse (1962), The Chill (1964), and The Far Side of the Dollar (1965) are unabashedly ambitious, richly peopled, and often far longer than a typical mystery. They are also scrupulously and economically plotted, perfectly paced, simple in style, and developed with attention to details of character and locality, ranging from the involutions of a twisted family group to forest, sea, and asphalt geography of his native California. They are books which go far beyond justifying the presence of their thematic content, to giving that content the weight of artistic truth.
In any writing, quality and quality alone is the first critical consideration. In his essay The Simple Art of Murder Raymond Chandler writes: "The detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels." MacDonald's best work demands our consideration, not because the author is an intelligent man sincerely interested in serious issues, but because he has found in crime fiction a form perfectly appropriate to those interests, and in himself a talent capable of developing that form to a new level of complexity and interest.
The Archer novels are laced with strange and wonderful accomplishments. The two masterpieces, The Chill and The Zebra Striped Hearse are as different in narrative approach as two mysteries rooted in perverse family situations could be. The first is an intensive, static exploration of personal and criminal relationships in a tiny California college, while the second is a novel in motion, sprawling over the whole Southwest and Mexico. But each of these divergent books works a similar splendid change on one of the shopworn tricks of the mystery trade, the revelation of guilt which confutes the reader's expectations. MacDonald transforms a mechanical gimmick into a genuinely horrifying reversal, in each case significant, completely unexpected, and carefully prepared. A reader finds such glimpses of horror throughout the Archer books, and just as often he feels the disturbing stab of empathy with a murderer which MacDonald evokes so well.
In the final chapters of Find a Victim and The Far Side of the Dollar this pang of identification is the germ of scenes of high domestic tragedy, moments without analogy in any recent writing. If MacDonald can be said to have any thematic obsession (and high art and obsession have been known to keep close company) it is the family: its tensions, its distorting cruelty, and its strange dignity. In each of these long concluding sequences Archer, and through him the reader, must witness at length the inexorable working-out of old guilts and old loves.
And a reader could ask no better intermediary. It is the character of Archer itself which is the finest of MacDonald's accomplishments. Isolated, guilty, constantly compromised by the nature of his work and the demands of personal and professional survival, he labors not to change a world or any corner of it, but to preserve something of his own integrity and decency. Lew Archer is a natural successor to Hammett's jaded Continental Op and Chandler's cynical knight-errant, Philip Marlowe, but his problems and solutions are far closer to us and the business of living now.
It is a little too easy to speak of literary art transcending genre Hamlet remains a revenge play, the greatest novel in English begins and ends as an American sea story, and transcendence is only a poor and pompous synonym for quality. Ross MacDonald has taken from the great tradition of crime fiction as much as he has given to it. He has enriched and expanded this tradition, but he has never abandoned or violated it. Like so many of the best American authors, he has produced a body of work in a genre style which meets the most severe standards of substance and execution which critics can devise for writing of any kind.
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