WE HAVEN’T FINISHED WITH THE COMMENTATORS
A Comment from the Author
“It is out of character for Archer to provide autobiography because his own life is suppressed, Millar told an English interviewer: ‘He lives through other people. He’s the shadow of the novelist.’ Thereafter Archer resumed his role as an outsider.”
Jerry Spier, in Ross Macdonald, makes the same point, more forcefully, than Wolfe; that the invention of Archer as a “shadow” rather than a true character is the hallmark of the series and set the expectations of the reader. The result is not only confusing but unconvincing.
Spier also notes that the book was not well-received. Even though The Barbarous Coast had sold poorly, at least it received good reviews. These two disappointments led Macdonald to consider, once again, withdrawing from private eye writing. Instead he persevered and produced The Galton Case. But it was a near thing.
“Critics of Macdonald’s work largely ignore The Doomsters . . . [but] it is a powerful novel, beautifully made . . . the success of a novel is determined not by the quality of the ideas it may contain or the methods through which those ideas are developed but by the degree to which is presents a significantly moving human action, in these terms, The Doomsters is an eminently successful fiction.”
The other commentators had various reservations, but Bernard Schopen, in Ross Macdonald, does not. He devoted an entire chapter to this work. And he notices something they miss. The nature and quality of Archer’s investigation is more subtle than before. Without spoilers, let me just say that Archer doesn’t simply get fragments of the truth; he gets versions of past events that turn out to be at least partly false. Everyone except Archer is an unreliable narrator of the events they relate. The result is not a filling-in of missing puzzle pieces; it is more like the movie Rashomon where the viewer struggles to reconcile inconsistent versions of events. It makes for good reading because the reader, like Archer, must constantly challenge his assumptions if he is to make any progress.
Schopen argues that, unlike The Barbarous Coast, this book is filled with “characters in a pattern of action that both grows out of and defines their essential nature.” They are not all likeable, but they are believable. “Characters in whom we recognize a shared humanity abound in The Doomsters. Even those peripheral to the action are drawn with compassion.”
As to the final chapters of the book, derided as “the longest confession by Ross Macdonald,” it draws his praise as “among the most powerful and moving in the history of the American detective novel.”
Tom Nolan, Macdonald’s Biographer
Nolan barely comments on the merits of many of Macdonald’s books, and for good reason. He is a biographer, not a literary critic. But he makes an exception. “The Doomsters is bold in its complex design . . . With its sure pace and crisp prose, The Doomsters belonged with the best of the previous Archers. What was new, was its more complex view of behavior. In this book Macdonald said goodbye to the simplistic views and solutions of the hard-boiled school.”
The Critical Response
If you puzzled through the inconsistent academic reactions to the book, you will not be surprised to learn that reviews were mixed. Anthony Boucher liked it, but that is hardly a surprise. But several influential critics disliked the “generally unpleasant personnel” and graded the book only a “medium.” Other critics were put off by the injection of Archer’s personal life into the story, which they felt was distracting and also outside the conventions of the genre.
Show Me the Money
There were few times in Macdonald’s life when money was more important, and this time his publisher disappointed him. The first print run was small, hardly larger than the small run of The Barbarous Coast; worse, as a genre book it was priced cheaper than a mainstream novel, ($2.95 rather than $3.50.) Even at the discount price, advance sales were disappointing.
Enough introduction—Let’s examine the book for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.