Part Three–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.
Note: These posts originally appeared in a slightly different form in The Armchair Detective Quarterly, Volume 29, Number 3, pp 290-295 in 1996.
You can email any comments to firstname.lastname@example.org