The title of his book Trouble Follows Me, is From His Own Life
A child is just three when his father abandons him and his mother. His father fails to provide support. His mother, weakened by both physical and mental illness, is often bedridden. When he is six, his mother takes him to an orphanage, intending to abandon him. After a long period of indecision at the gate she reconsiders and takes him home again. Poverty and instability overshadow the child’s next fifteen years. The boy suffers a rootless upbringing in a foreign country, sometimes living with his mother and sometimes boarded with distant relatives. The one aunt with whom he forms a loving bond dies when he is twelve and he is shipped off to yet another strange city. By the time he reaches high school he has lived in fifty different places. He graduates high school in the middle of the Depression and can only find work as a farm hand. His father dies when he is seventeen. One day not long afterwards he comes home to find his mother’s body. He is now completely alone in the world.
This boy grows up to be:
A. A substance abuser
B. A serial killer
C. The writer of “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”
Macdonald’s life was never easy. His books sold slowly during the first twenty years of his writing career. A biographer has calculated that one of his better-known books, The Moving Target, netted him only $3,000 to $4,400. Even though he was married to the successful novelist Margaret Millar, their combined earnings didn’t allow them to own a comfortable home until 1965, after twenty-seven years of marriage. Even then, the money came not from their writing but from the movie rights to The Moving Target, which was made into Harper with Paul Newman.
Middle age brought him more than a normal share of heartbreak. He had a deeply troubled marriage. They brought out the worst in each other and they might have found satisfaction if they had gone their separate ways. Given the level of tension in that household, it is not surprising that their only child, a daughter, carried burdens of her own. She killed a pedestrian while driving drunk. She and her father spent years in psychotherapy together. In 1959 she disappeared for ten days, setting off a widespread search. The ordeal undermined Macdonald’s health; after his daughter was located, he was hospitalized with cardiac distress, severe hypertension, and gout. His survival was in doubt. He was only 44 years old. His daughter died in 1970; shortly afterwards his wife’s eyesight began failing. His last book was published in 1976; by that time his wife was nearly blind. His memory began failing. In 1980 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He died in 1983. His only grandchild died of a drug overdose. The only mercy in this story is that, when it happened, Macdonald’s dementia was too far gone for him to realize.
If Ross Macdonald had simply suppressed his disadvantaged upbringing and become an ordinary, productive individual, his struggle would have been noteworthy. But instead of just denying his past, he confronted it and turned the misery of his youth into the subject of his books. And he did more than mine his past for themes – he transmuted the insecurity and fears of his childhood years into a body of literature that still speaks vividly, fifty years later.
Why is Macdonald’s crime fiction remembered when most of his contemporaries are forgotten? His style is one reason – clear and economical, with vivid imagery (his Ph.D. thesis was on Coleridge) and sharp characterizations of even the minor players.
His use of similes is arresting; for example, as on the first page of Sleeping Beauty when he describes an aerial view of the Santa Barbara oil slick: “An off-shore oil platform stood up out of the windward end like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it bleed black blood.” Nearly every page of every one of his mature books has one just as good.
His plotting, taken on its own terms, is superb. Macdonald said that a plot should be a circle, and he followed his own dictum even in his earliest novels. There are false leads aplenty, but no wasted action. Characters may seem to act in unexpected ways, but once all the facts are known, the motivations are clear. Moreover, his plots are not just economical contrivances – they serve his overarching theme, which is how the characters in the present are prisoners of the past, doomed to repeat cycles of revenge for acts which occurred generations before.
Why He Matters Now
None of this is sufficient to explain his enduring popularity. The truth lies in the intent which informs his entire body of work, which was “to create literature for the common man.” He aimed his work at the common man, but in the manner of Homer rather than that of a hack. What makes him remarkable is not just his ability to hold our attention, but how that talent was coupled with an ambition to address a great theme of the Western intellectual tradition – in his case, the myth of Oedipus.
The Galton Case and nearly all his works thereafter are retellings of that myth. Lew Archer, Macdonald’s detective, invariably finds that the crime he is investigation was either in the previous generation, or to cover up an old crime. Macdonald identified strongly with the Oedipal legend; not in its overtly sexual Freudian sense, but the broader theme of the young prince banished from his own country, forced to wander in foreign lands in poverty, who eventually returns to the land of his birth to unearth the secrets of his past.
Macdonald’s greatness, however, is not that simple. The fact that he wrote about crimes of the preceding generation gives him no special claim; most detective stories include some motivation for the crime in the past, frequently the distant past – and Shakespeare worked that same theme long before Macdonald. His unique talent was to combine his own life experiences with his literary background to create novels where the Oedipal story was no tacked-on gimmick, but the very fabric of the story. The Oedipus themes don’t just lie on the surface of a Macdonald novel; they soak all the way through.
At the University of Michigan in 1954, Macdonald spoke on why detective fiction was considered separate from general fiction. Certainly not because general fiction doesn’t involve crime; rather, it is a matter of focus. In a good work of general fiction that involves a crime, the focus is on the perpetrator; or, more rarely, on the victim. This is, he says, as it should be – the book should want to make us understand how the characters could be involved in such extreme behavior. In a detective story the focus is on the detective – who, Macdonald says, is merely a personification of society and is ultimately morally uninteresting.
Macdonald’s view of the detective novel, and his sensitivity about delving into his own past for his themes, led him to create on of the greatest non-characters of detective fiction, Lew Archer. In an often-repeated interview, Macdonald described Archer as “ . . . a deliberately narrowed version of the writing self, so narrow that when he turns sideways he almost disappears.” Contemporary readers of detective fiction feel cheated if the author withholds details of the detective’s food preferences, wardrobe, hobbies, or sexual preferences; after eighteen Lew Archer books, our knowledge of his personal life would fit comfortably into a single paragraph. And Archer gives sparingly of himself in the books, too. He is the observer, the Greek chorus, reporting on events and yet unmoved by them. Look out there, he seems to say, not at me; I’m just doing my job. Study the people I’m studying. And it works. The pleasure from reading Macdonald’s best work is the same pleasure as reading good general fiction – the pleasure of coming to understand the characters. The focus is on gaining insight into the characters, not just solving the crime.
Towards a Balanced View
Macdonald was unquestionably a great mystery writer and is still very much with us; but his skill was seldom reflected in sales or in general popularity. Chandler and Hammett, who produced many fewer books, are more famous; and some of his contemporaries, such as Mickey Spillane, are more widely read.
Why isn’t he read in full proportion to the quality of his books? Four reasons come to mind.
First, his plots are too similar. Macdonald’s greatest strength is also his weakness. He found a great theme, a theme of personal relevance, and wrestled with it again and again. It has been said of him, not unkindly, that after The Galton Case, he wrote the same book again ten more times. Nothing wrong with that, in itself; John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, to name the first few examples that come to mind, all climb the same mountain repeatedly. But in the mystery genre, where such a premium is placed on novelty of plot and solution, this sameness is a defect. A few plot complications repeat themselves – circumstances of birth are concealed, husbands and wives turn out to be brother and sister, or mother and son; siblings are really half-siblings; sometimes people are someone else entirely than they claim to be. The Chill, which many (including Macdonald) feel was his best book, is typical – the diagram of the plot, although technically accurate, is very nearly a parody of the kind of triple-decker generational tangle of relationships he loved so much.
Second is the negative role of women and sexuality in his fiction. Macdonald wrote many strong women characters; imaginative, determined, and intelligent – but almost always as murderers. In his world, the women are usually either murderous seductresses or helpless victims. Sexuality almost never has happy consequences – almost every coupling results either in a homicide, or at least a child who will grow up to commit a homicide. There are happy people, here and there, sprinkled among Macdonald’s novels, but practically no happy relationships between men and women, either in or out of marriage. Macdonald was not anti-feminist, although he was probably pre-feminist. The root problem that disquiets some readers, I think, is his dark, Freudian view of sexuality and his pessimism about relations between the sexes. In a society that often seems to view sex as simply an aerobic activity, his vision of relations between the sexes is chilly and out of step with our times. Macdonald had ample reason to come to this point of view from personal experience, something we will be discussing in detail.
Third, Macdonald has a flaw shared with many writers in the genre, the weakness for the lucky hunch. Coupled with his arch plotting, his investigations often seem contrived. Archer happens to be standing outside a window when the forces of evil plan their next move, or just driving by when the key witness turns up. I plead my client guilty, but with mitigating circumstances. He wrote private eye stories, not police procedurals. Archer can’t solve his cases with manpower or technology. A couple of bits of luck and a gift for being in the right place at the right time are the stock in trade of the fictional private eye, and if Macdonald sometimes errs on the side of improbability, his fault is only a matter of degree compared to the rest of us.
Last, maybe Macdonald was simply wrongheaded in his quest to create “a literature for the common man.” His books are easy enough to read, but they are more demanding than many of his competitors, then and now. Are there readers willing to make the extra effort? He may be in the position of the researcher who has discovered the cure for which there is no know disease. Does the “common man” seek literature at all, or just a comfortable chair and Netflix?
Macdonald was a writer’s writer; few private eye writers today do not consciously acknowledge their debt to him. He leaves writers another legacy as well – that of modesty and patience. He wrote for twenty years before achieving significant commercial success. He never won an Edgar for Best Novel. He overcame his frustrations and disappointments to write the best books he could and to perfect his craft to the best of his ability.
I adapt my closing from Lawrence Durrell: “Ross Macdonald, so right, so wrong, so great; may his ghost breathe on us all.”
I hope you enjoy the Ross Macdonald blog and visit often.