Macdonald Sidelined Archer Without a Good Reason
Meet Me at the Morgue is a fine mystery. Technically, it shows a solid advance over the preceding Archer books. But the book sold poorly, and is little discussed today, because of a couple of what I will call strategic flaws.
First, Macdonald underestimated the draw of Lew Archer. He only realized it too late when he saw how much the critics and his fans missed their familiar detective. He would only make that mistake once more.
Second, Macdonald’s only clear reason for abandoning Archer was to provide an opportunity for a romantic aspect to the story. But Macdonald overestimated his ability to write a romantic theme. The oldest writing advice in the world is to write what you know. He has no clue how a woman and a man gradually come together, find attraction and then love. How could he?
- His parents separated, after a difficult marriage, when he was a very small child.
- Although his childhood and adolescence were spent in a wide variety of homes, none of them included a loving married couple.
- He never dated or formed a long-term relationship with a woman before meeting his wife Margaret.
- Nothing in his marriage to his wife would have equipped him to write positively about romance or even to give him some idea of what it was. The two had a famously hostile and distant relationship, at least until their illnesses in their later years forced them together.
- I write all this with a caveat. In his later years he formed a deep and longstanding romantic relationship with Eudora Welty, as documented in a marvelous collection of their correspondence, Meanwhile There Are Letters. Sadly, his relationship with Welty was far in the future. We can only speculate what kind of impact Welty could have had on Macdonald’s fiction if they had met in 1950 instead of 1970.
“A Man Has to Know His Limitations”
This observation from a Clint Eastwood movie came along thirty years too late to help Macdonald, but it reveals the reasons for this flaw in the book. If Macdonald had refrained, as he does in all the later Archer books until The Blue Hammer, from attempting the kinds of scenes he couldn’t write, Meet me at The Morgue could easily have been the fifth successful Archer.
Briefly, let the Critics Have Their Say
Bernard Schopen calls it “a step backwards in Macdonald’s development.”
Peter Wolfe, in Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams, praises much about the book but is suspicious of the romantic ending. “Mood notwithstanding, this romantic resolution rings false on too many grounds. Helen and Cross, who meet the day before her husband dies, have only known each other a week; they’ve never been alone together; nothing indicates their special feelings for each other.”
The Bottom Line
Tom Nolan, Macdonald’s biographer, describes sales as “sluggish.” The poor performance of the book caused Macdonald trouble with his publishers when he was negotiating for the sale of his next book, Find a Victim.