Thoughts on Macdonald’s Research



Macdonald was a professional crime writer and in many respects he took his calling very seriously.

  • He and his wife so regularly attended trials that they were well-known to the courthouse staff. A homicide case would take days to present; this was a serious commitment which took away from their writing time.
  • When Macdonald was researching Meet Me at The Morgue he shadowed a probation officer so that he could better describe the work of a probation officer. And he did a good job—I was a probation officer myself and he does a fine job of describing how the work is part cop and part social worker.
  • Macdonald attended several autopsies, which is a very unpleasant business and not for the faint of heart.
  • He came to know many lawyers well. He conveys the nuances of the profession as only an experienced observer can; the young, overworked, hardscrabble criminal defense lawyers; the older, established, self-satisfied practitioners of what is now called “wealth management;” and the district attorneys, who come in every stripe from dedicated law enforcement professionals to political hacks.  In my own 45-year career I’ve done everything but admiralty; I can assure you that every one of his descriptions about the lives of lawyers ring true.

But there are some peculiar gaps in his knowledge:

  • His knowledge of firearms is everything I would expect from a Canadian academic. That is not a compliment. He regularly confuses revolvers with automatics, is sometimes hazy about calibers, and describes firearms handling in peculiar ways. This book, unusually in his work, turns upon forensic evidence—being able to match the same gun to all three murders.  The gun is referred to as a “police positive.” This is the name for a specific model of Colt revolver in wide circulation at the time and would be described as a Police Positive, capitalized. To see it uncapitalized is as jarring as seeing “ford” or “chevrolet.” It’s a tiny point but it breaks the authorial spell.


  • A more serious mistake is his naïve understanding of marijuana and its effects. He portrays Jo early in the novel as going through the agonies of marijuana withdrawal. However, the rapid smoking of two joints eases her symptoms. This silliness is even more striking because in the previous chapter Archer has been talking to a prostitute who injects heroin.  And Macdonald has demonstrated his understanding of morphine addiction as long ago as 1947 when he wrote Blue City. Heroin addiction was an element of several of the books since that time.  How does he not understand the difference?


                                                 A Career Milestone

Macdonald did not set out to become a detective story writer.  His first two books just happened, for reasons to do with the war and his free time.  Blue City and The Three Roads were written as experiments.  His goal, if he could not succeed as an academic, was to pursue a career in literary fiction. The failure of Winter Solstice put that dream on hold temporarily.  The Moving Target was a step towards his eventual career path, but it was by no means an irrevocable one.  But as the years went by the walls hardened.  The lack of commercial success of his non-Archer book, Meet Me at the Morgue, accelerated the process.  With the publishing arrangements surrounding Find a Victim, Macdonald’s career path was set.  There will be one more non-Archer, The Ferguson Affair, but he will never attempt anything of book length outside the genre.




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