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Ross Macdonald, True Detective

The '50s noir novelist investigated sources of rot in the American grain.

Illustration by John Ritter

In April 1949, Raymond Chandler described his aspiration to write a transcending book, “which, ostensibly a mystery and keeping the spice of mystery, will actually be a novel of character and atmosphere with an over-tone of violence and fear.” Chandler was contemplating his most ambitious—and most uneven—novel, The Long Goodbye. He was also contemplating Ross Macdonald, who had just published The Moving Target, his first novel featuring the detective Lew Archer. At the time, Chandler was obsessed with “significant” writing and resentful of the trash-strewn gully out back to which he believed genre writers like him were consigned. The Moving Target, he told a friend, impressed him as a lesson in “How Not to be a Sophisticated Writer.” He was especially annoyed by Macdonald’s description of a car as “acned with rust,” a pretentious tell that, for Chandler, marked Macdonald as just another “recherché” writer.

Library of America, 2,618 pp., $112.50

He protested too much. Macdonald would go on to write 18 Lew Archer novels, eleven of which have been reissued by the Library of America, the publishing imprint inspired by Edmund Wilson’s vision for a series that would canonize and preserve the best American writing, as the Pléiade editions had done in France. Macdonald didn’t want for fans, from Iris Murdoch to Warren Zevon, who dedicated an album to him. His biggest admirer was Eudora Welty, with whom he exchanged the hundreds of intimate notes collected in Meanwhile There Are Letters. (Welty tells Macdonald that she dreams in his handwriting; he confides that “I live in your world, as you live constantly in mine.”) This summer’s release of the Library’s third volume of Macdonald’s novels—Black Money, The Instant Enemy, The Goodbye Look, and The Underground Man—places him alongside Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—not to mention Melville, Faulkner, Baldwin, and Welty—on America’s most rarefied bookshelf.

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.

Ross Macdonald was the pen name of Kenneth Millar. Born in California in 1915, his early life was shaped by his parents’ separation, after which his mother set out with him across Canada. Through the 1920s, they lived in rooming houses and with assorted relatives; his mother begged for money in the streets, and Macdonald narrowly avoided the orphanage. By the age of 16, he had lived at 50 different addresses. He went through a long phase of stealing and drinking and bisexual promiscuity, and would spend his life struggling to reconcile his early anguish and humiliation. In a pool hall in Kitchener, Ontario, he found his great means of doing so. There he picked up a Hammett novel and instantly read secret meaning into it.

Hammett was an evanescent talent whose brief run yielded books perhaps best remembered for becoming films: The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. His deeper achievement was to distill the authentic experience of day-to-day urban corruption into intense, laconic tragedies like The Glass Key and his masterpiece, Red Harvest. Hammett had worked as a detective, and he saw what a writer could do by putting a single man on the case in a shadowed world with only his gun and his deadpan to protect him against inimical forces. But unlike real detectives, the Continental Op and Sam Spade were aspirational; Hammett called Spade “a dream man” because there never was a real shamus like him. Spade and the Op were also such infectious characters that no dame could resist them. Neither could Hammett’s literary heir, Chandler.

Chandler’s hero, that “self-sufficient, self-satisfied, self-confident, untouchable bastard” Philip Marlowe, is a ravishing American creation. Chandler published seven Marlowe novels between 1939 and 1958, and how delicious it always is to watch him hold Marlowe up to the light and shake the simile out of him: “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” The dialogue is smooth, shiny, and loaded with sin. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” Marlowe tells Vivian Regan in The Big Sleep. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Vivian responds, “People don’t talk like that to me.” And that was the limitation: People don’t speak that way. When you finished the books, what you were left with was the unforgettable man lighting up the unforgettable dark city with memorably bright talk, but little to deepen the reality of life as people live it.

1973: Macdonald imagined an open-minded “new-type” detective.

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.

When Macdonald returned to California in the 1940s, his wife, Margaret Millar, was already a successful writer, whereas Macdonald himself still had one foot in the Navy and one in the academy, at the University of Michigan. Only in 1951 did he complete his dissertation, on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. W. H. Auden had been one of his professors, and the revered poet’s esteem for detective novels made him one of the several surrogate father figures who directed Macdonald’s life from afar. (Another was his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.)

In the ’50s, Macdonald visited juvenile detention facilities, attended many trials, and befriended judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and boxers. Yet it was his poor, exiled, fatherless childhood, with his sense of being torn between two countries and somehow damned for crimes he couldn’t remember committing, that made Macdonald—and made Archer. In his scrupulous and perceptive 1999 biography, Ross Macdonald, Tom Nolan makes clear that the ongoing irresolution of those early years was the source of both Macdonald’s art and the “deranged” family life he and Margaret created together. One source told Nolan that Macdonald had the heavy emotional weather of a “very cooled-out person.” That was Archer, a cooled-out hero. “I wasn’t Archer, exactly,” Macdonald wrote in an essay titled “The Writer as Detective Hero,” “but Archer was me.”

Many of Archer’s cases involve someone missing—often a fiancée or a child—and loss is Macdonald’s great subject. (When Macdonald’s friend Betty Lid telephoned in terror because her husband was away, leaving her alone during a raging California canyon fire, Macdonald’s response was, “Betty, you’re always alone.”) As Archer digs into a present calamity, he must inevitably trace it through earlier generations of calamity. All the prodigal daughters, abandoned sons, and shipwrecked girls next door got that way for a reason. The wounded orphan Davy Spanner from The Instant Enemy steals cars to go “grief riding,” and is cursed with a temper that, when it ignites, makes him imagine violent enemies everywhere. Young, neglected Sandy, in the same book, acts out because “by getting into trouble Sandy had converted herself into an unforgettable presence.” Archer turns up the worst that can happen in a childhood: There are rape victims, suicides, runaways, bulimics, a boy with “white scars down his back, hundreds of them, like fading cuneiform cuts.” When somebody remarks how hard it is to figure kids these days, Archer says, “It always was.”

People who knew him considered Macdonald to be kind, gentle, a little distanced, and ferociously principled. If his distressing childhood overwhelmed his own fathering acumen, he saw with great clarity other parents who refused to grow up, who succumbed to whatever made them feel better in the moment. The Doomsters is one of several Archer novels about fallen idol-adults behaving badly in front of children, who inevitably see more than anybody believes they can grasp, with traumatizing results. Macdonald’s books teem with lost fathers, deadbeats, cuckqueans, sexually frustrated husbands and homicidal mothers—women driven to bloodshed by despicable men. Macdonald knows that few murderers ever kill more than once, and the killings he writes about are the extreme expression of character under stress. As he puts it in The Zebra-Striped Hearse, murderers set out to destroy “an unlamented past which seemed to bar them from the brave new world.”

Macdonald’s own world was the new California. He describes places “where cops were hated and feared.” There are women who wonder, “Is that all there is?” (Archer’s reliable view is “girls can do about anything boys can do.”) Macdonald thinks about drug abuse, racial and ethnic discrimination, the long-term emotional effects of incarceration, the despoiled environment, and income inequality. In The Goodbye Look, the detective wonders, “How can a man help breaking the law if he don’t have money to live on?”

Once Archer begins a case, he never quits, even if his client fires him. He thinks he owes it to the victim and to himself to see it through. Ultimately, the new-type detective is addicted to the picaresque so beautifully described in The Instant Enemy:

I had to admit to myself that I lived for nights like these, moving across the city’s great broken body, making connections among its millions of cells. I had a crazy wish or fantasy that some day, before I died, if I made all the right neural connections, the city would come all the way alive.

It’s a detective’s fantasy, something very different from the fantasy detectives of Hammett and Chandler. Macdonald describes real detectives with the same technical fluency with which another great and underappreciated modern novelist, John Le Carré, portrays intelligence operatives. Archer is constructed in formidable contrast to the petty, rigid law-enforcement hack thriving in every department, who hurries to conclusions about cases and then sets aside the facts that don’t fit. In The Zebra-Striped Hearse, Macdonald offers the job description for that rare thing, the first-rate detective: “honesty, imagination, curiosity, and a love of people.” Excellent detectives are humane, steady people with frayed collars who understand the world’s basic instability, don’t put any faith in coincidences or prosecutors, and always trust the ballistics expert. Life, Macdonald says, “always has loose ends, and it’s sometimes best to let them ravel out.”

In 1950, Chandler published a collection he entitled Trouble Is My Business, a phrase Macdonald would enjoy rebuking again and again. “Getting information is my business,” Archer says in Black Money. You get the lowdown by listening; the good detective can merge with any group, nest into any situation. “I spent most of my working time waiting, talking and waiting,” Archer says in The Doomsters. “Talking to ordinary people in ordinary neighborhoods about ordinary things, waiting for truth to come up to the surface.” Those conversations have to seem casual, because asking strangers to tell you their hidden truths is always delicate. Even Archer loses people: “She’d come close to the edge of candor but I had pushed her too fast. She drew away from it, her personality almost visibly receding.”

Archer is compelled by a decent and generous belief that the world becomes a better place when men with authority are motivated not by power or self-gratification, but by their desire to understand the ordinary citizens they are supposed to be helping. “Other people’s lives are my business,” Archer says in The Far Side of the Dollar. They’re also “my passion. And my obsession, too, I guess. I’ve never been able to see much in the world besides the people in it.” Macdonald gave the downcast jobs of a day-rate 1950s detective a timeless mission: to investigate the sources of rot in the American grain. Today, when socially conscious law enforcement sometimes seems a fantasy—mere aspiration—it’s especially apt to see Lew Archer dressed up in the glossy black Library of America club jacket, the model American detective. His enduring virtue—and Ross Macdonald’s—is compassion.