WALKING BACK INTO THE SUBURBS OF HELL


                                          An aside on wisecracking in early Macdonald


The title of this post is taken from the last line of chapter nine; Weather has been driven to the edge of town, beaten unconscious and dumped into a ditch by Moffat, a corrupt cop.  We he comes to, he finds that Moffat robbed him as well.

Without histrionics, Weather dusts himself off and starts walking straight back into town.

It’s a powerful, understated moment that reveals Weather’s determination at one of his lowest moments in the book.  And a few lines later, when Weather catches a bus, Macdonald trashes the atmosphere with the following gratuitous exchange when questioned by a fellow-passenger:

“Say, haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”

“Never,” I said. “I just arrived from South Africa where my father owns the Kimberley Diamond Mines.  His name, curiously enough, is Jan Christian Smuts.

         We all learn by imitation, even artists.  Despite their later falling out, Macdonald always admired Chandler’s style.  Macdonald’s attitude toward Hammett went beyond admiration—Blue City is a love letter to the Hammett of Red Harvest.   The senior writers both allowed their respective detectives wry observations and even wisecracks, especially in the presence of the police.  Such language has its place:

  • It establishes the autonomy and authority of the detective.
  • It breaks tension.
  • It can provide ironic commentary on the action.
  • It provides time for the detective to think of a substantive response.
  • Conversely, it may distract the other party and divert them from their agenda.

The wisecrack has so many uses that it quickly became a trope in hard-boiled writing, with some writers wielding the tool better than others.  In his mature books Archer can wisecrack with the best of them.  Lew Archer seldom reaches the easy patter of Sam Spade, or Marlowe at his best, but Archer brings an appropriate level of dry, ironic humor to the table.

In the early books, Macdonald is still learning, and his ridiculous overuse of wisecracks is a clear weakness in his writing.  Macdonald’s early works are novels without restraint.  He seldom knows when to temper his language, and the wisecracks are where his lack of control is most obvious.  But trust me, soon enough he will get much better.

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