Part Two–His Work
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.
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