Sunday, August 14, 2022

Galley Slaves: The Way Some People Die (1951), Ross Macdonald; Plus: The Way Some Crime Writers Decry, or The Feud Between Ray and Ross

"I told him it was a prodigal daughter case."

"God, I despise you Archer!  You're  a dirty little sees-all hears-all tells-all monkey, aren't you?  What difference does it make to you what people do?"

--The Way Some People Die (1951), by Ross Macdonald

Okay, dear readers, are you Team Chandler or Team Ross?  No, I'm not talking about the cast of the Nineties TV series Friends, of course, but the hard-boiled crime writers Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and Ross Macdonald (1915-1983), two of the three hosts, along with Dashiell Hammett, in the hard-boiled triumvirate.  

After 'prenticing by writing short crime fiction in the pulps, Raymond Chandler--something of a querulous, alcoholic, middle-aged failure--finally in 1939, when he was 51 years old, published The Big Sleep, one of the cornerstones of crime fiction.  He would publish a total of seven Philip Marlowe hard-boiled crime novels between 1939 and 1958.  Aside from The Big Sleep, these are Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), The Lady in the Lake (1943), The Little Sister (1949), The Long Goodbye (1953) and Playback (1958), the latter deemed a disappointing coda to a major body of bloodwork.  

It's a small output for a professional crime writer, but Chandler notoriously had great trouble thinking out plots for his novels.  Three of them, Sleep, Lovely and Lake, fuse, with varying success, earlier short stories to build the novel structure, while Playback was based on an unproduced film screenplay.  Chandler did scripting work in Hollywood, notably working, between 1944 and 1951, on screenplays for the crime films Double Indemnity (Oscar screenplay nomination), The Unseen, The Blue Dahlia (Oscar screenplay nomination), and Strangers on a Train.  

Chandler was successful by the standards of mystery publishing in the day, but he felt underappreciated, both by the critics and the public.  And it's true that the literary world, including academia at the time, tended to adopt a condescending attitude toward crime writing.  Chandler was often very bitter and on lonely nights at his typewriter had a tendency to indulge his sense of snark at the expense of myriad people, places and things, not the least of which were other crime writers.  (Were Chandler around today, he probably would have been banned from Twitter numerous times.  I can see easily Chandler as an internet curmudgeon, griping about wokeness and cancellation.)  

One of the crime writers whom Chandler lambasted was that young up-and-comer Ross Macdonald, a Canadian-American in his thirties who came of an academic background.  (He eventually received his PhD in English in 1952, at the age of 37.)  After publishing four non-series 'prentice works of crime fiction under his actual name, Kenneth Millar, as Ross Macdonald he published his first Lew Archer hard-boiled detective novel, The Moving Target, in April 1949, to acclaim from crime fiction reviewers.  

The influential Anthony Boucher, just starting his two decade long stint reviewing crime fiction at the New York Times, was rhapsodic, proclaiming that the author of The Moving Target stood head and shoulders over his competitors in the hard-boiled field as a weaver of words and observer of people.  When critic James Sandoe wrote Raymond Chandler about The Moving Target he called it an "astonishing book," but added that it was a "pure pastiche" of Chandler and "fundamentally phony," though "it disguised the fact better than I could possibly have anticipated."  

Chandler himself was not amused, pronouncing the book affected--he famously derided Macdonald's description of a deteriorated car as being "acned with rust"--and synthetic in its emotions.  The author, he declared, was just another one of the fancy pants intellectuals, "literary eunuchs" who  imitate others and show off with surface cleverness because they themselves "feel nothing."

It could not have soothed Chandler's feelings that when his own first novel in six years, The Little Sister, appeared later that year, Anthony Boucher essentially panned it, writing that the novel presented the unpleasant "spectacle of a prose writer of high attainments wasting his talents in a pretentious attempt to make bricks without straw--or much clay, either."  

When Boucher chose selected the best crime novels of 1949, he excluded The Little Sister and included The Moving Target, writing that Macdonald had returned the "much-abused hard-boiled detective story to its original Hammett high level."  The suggestion that Macdonald--not Chandler--might be Hammett's rightful heir must have been especially galling to Chandler, who definitely read Boucher's columns in the New York Times Book Review.  Chandler not long afterward referred to Boucher as a "pipsqueak," though this was in connection with another matter.

When Macdonald's second Lew Archer detective novel, The Drowning Pool, appeared in 1950, Chandler attacked it in private correspondence, just as he had The Moving Target, calling much of it "pure parody" of his own writing, though he allowed: "The man has ability.  He could be a good writer."

Again Macdonald won general critical praise, however, and his next book, The Way Some People Die, received an absolute rave from Boucher, who pronounced it "the best novel in the tough tradition that I've read since Farewell, My Lovely...and possibly since The Maltese Falcon."  (The ellipses were Boucher's own.)  If the latter claim would true, this meant that Die was better than anything Chandler himself had yet written. Macdonald, not Chandler, would be the real heir to Hammett.  This Macdonald book likewise made Boucher's best of the year list.  

Chandler would rebound in Anthony Boucher's estimation in 1953 with the publication of The Long Goodbye, which many consider Chandler's magnum opus.  The novel would win an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of Americas for best novel of the year, a distinction which no RM novel ever achieved.  Macdonald himself would, with The Doomsters (1958) and particularly The Galton Case (1959), move away from from Chandler and the hard-boiled style, writing another dozen or so books about multi-generational family dysfunction, with Archer now acting as a sort of soft-boiled family therapist.  Macdonald himself thought that he had achieved something new and important with this shift and many critics agreed, though some damned Macdonald's later books as tedious psychological naval-gazing.  The comment was frequently made that Macdonald wrote the same book and over.

Whatever one thinks of the later books, however, the view seems to have crystallized fairly firmly that the early Macdonalds are, as Chandler himself thought. overly imitative of Chandler, that with them Macdonald had not found his true self as an author--the real Ross, as it were.  

Maybe not, but I think several of the early books are damn good anyway!

I have reread The Moving Target and found it rather better than I recalled, but in this post I want to talk one of RM biographer Tom Nolan's favorites among the early novels, The Way Some People Die.  It really is superb.


Die opens, like other early RMs, with Lew Archer actually getting hired by a client.  In later books, like Sleeping Beauty, Archer just seems to foist himself on people, whether they want him or not.  In Sleeping Beauty he gets in on a case because he runs into this troubled woman on a beach.  He sticks with the case even though his business relationship with these people is highly questionable.  The early books are definitely more traditional, but it's kind of nice to see Archer really functioning as a PI, rather than as some sort of roving Jessica Fletcher.

Anyway, in Die Archer is hired by a highly proper and traditional widow, Mrs. Samuel Lawrence, the widow of a doctor, to find her beautiful twenty-four-year-old daughter, Galley (Galatea), whom she has not heard from for more than a couple of months.  

Right away from this first chapter, indeed the first paragraph, or really the first sentence, the writing grabs you:

The house was in Santa Monica on a cross street between the boulevards, within earshot of the coast highway and rifleshot of the sea.  The street was the kind that people had once been proud to live on, but in the last few years it had lost its claim to pride.  The houses had too many stories, too few widows, not enough paint....Even the palms that lined the street looked as if they had seen their best days and were starting to lose their hair.

Within "rifleshot of the sea"--love it!  Even in his tougher days, Archer is something of a soft touch, as he observes: "The house didn't look as it it had money in it, or ever would again.  I went in anyway, because I'd liked the woman's voice on the telephone."

The interior of the house--Victorian, of course--is packed with furniture: "If the lady had come down in the world, she'd brought a lot down with her." Mrs. Lawrence serves tea which tastes "like a clear dark dripping from the past."  This last line is a good example of the RM use of alliterative similes and metaphors.  His writing often has a distinct poetic cadence--"clear dark dripping from the past"--that really roils off the tongue.  As he sits at tea, Archer observes: "My grandmother came back with it, in crisp black funeral silks, and I had to look out of the window to dispel her."

All of this so far could have come out of a classic British mystery (although the keen writing would not have been so common), but when Archer begins investigating Galley's disappearance, he finds himself emerging from the genteel past into the tawdry present, a treacherous world of double and triple cross crosses and multiplying violent murders.

Macdonald is equally adept at portraying this latter world of depravity, with its gangsters and floozies and junkies.  And the junkies!  RW's biographer Tom Nolan notes the influence on The Way Some People Die of  Nelson Algren's recent published novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the first National Book Award in 1950.  There's an uncommon sober grittiness to sections of Die that really sends it to the head of the hard-boiled class.  If Chandler feared being superseded by Macdonald, those fears would have been amplified by Die and its successor in the Archer series, The Ivory Grin (1952).  Perhaps it was these works that made Chandler step up his game with The Long Goodbye.


Ross Macdonald

When Chandler's comments to James Sandoe disparaging RM were published around 1960, after Chandler's death, RM was furious and his perception of Chandler was forever colored by it.  However, even before that time RM had tired of the comparisons of himself to Chandler, as if he were nothing more than an imitator.  "I hear on all sides, though I refrain from reading Chandler myself, that Chandler's last book [The Little Sister] wasn't that good, which leaves a bit of a vacuum in the field," RM bluntly wrote his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, whom Chandler had left when he published The Little Sister with Houghton, Mifflin.  

Knopf replied equally that "Chandler's last was just as well written as ever, but it exposed clearly his weakness and satisfied me that there were quite sound reasons why we had never sold him as he thought he ought to be sold.  He just can't build a plot; in fact I don't think he even tries."  

However, RM's Knopf sales proved disappointing as well, numbering under 4000 hardcover copies per title, only somewhat better than the average for mysteries of 3000.  In 1953 Knopf wrote Chandler asking him whether he had retired from mystery writing (this was a year before the publication of The Long Goodbye); and Nolan speculates that Knopf, disappointed with RM's sales, was hoping to lure Chandler back into the fold.  

Chandler replied that "in a way I regret that I was ever persuaded to leave you....But I did, and a man can't keep jumping from publisher to publisher.  Anyhow, you have your hard-boiled writer now, and for a house of your standing, one is enough."  Nolan suggests that Chandler was hinting he might jump back if only Knopf sacked RM!

A few years later in 1958, when English crime writer and critic Julian Symons was compiling a list of the 100 Best Crime Stories for the Sunday Times, he was urged by his editor to solicit contributions from other mystery writers as well, a proposition to which he assented though he wasn't crazy about it.  One of the writers he contacted about a submission, Symons later noted in 1973, was none other than Raymond Chandler, who was living in England at the time, drinking himself to death.  

"I remember one day at Helga Greene's flat when [Chandler] lay on a sofa talking, with a drink just behind his shoulder," Symons mordantly recalled, "which [Greene] constantly diluted as she replenished it."  Somewhat disingenuously Symons writes in 1973 that it was his idea to ask other writers to participate in the Best Crime Story list, though many years later he admitted it was anything but:

Raymond Chandler in England, where he felt
more appreciated, at the time he knew Julian Symons. 
Here he appears to be sinking into the couch
as multiple drinks take effect and sparks seem to fly
between the young couple on either side of him.

I had what seemed the bright idea of getting famous writers to choose three or four books, although this didn't work out too well in practice, so that in the end I chose 90 per cent of the books myself.

It certainly didn't work with Chandler, who for the most part picked tough, little known American thrillers.  While we talked about the idea, he sipped a little champagne before lunch, said Helga was a marvelous cook but ate hardly anything, and later sat back with diluted whisky talking pontifically.  

It was clear he didn't like being contradicted, at least by me, although he kept saying I was a critic and had read 20 times more crime stories than he had even heard of, so why come to him, and so on....he seemed to me rather fussy and old womanish.

By 1973 Symons had gotten to know RM well and he observed in his Chandler piece that "something about Macdonald's work rankled [him]....When...he sent me his list of books for the '100 best crime stories' (I didn't use any of them), he remarked that he 'omitted numerous gentlemen who have paid me the compliment of imitation,' and this was principally a hit at Macdonald."

It looks like Chandler had just written off RM as a pretentious imitator of himself, which is a shame.  Chandler died in 1959, the year RM published what most people consider his breakthrough book, The Galton Case, but I'm guessing the later RM novels wouldn't have appealed to Chandler either, largely because he probably wouldn't have had much empathy for what RM's critics have dismissed psychological naval-gazing. As Symons wrote in 1973:

Macdonald's recent novels dig into the past, looking for a family secret, a distant traumatic event which influences the present.  By contrast, Chandler offers a series of sparkling surfaces, below which he doesn't care to look.  And he doesn't want us to look below the surface either.

There was a resistance among many Golden Age crime writers, whether of the classic or hard-boiled variety, to looking beneath those surfaces.  RM spent years in analysis.  Can one imagine Chandler doing so?  Or Hammett?  Or Agatha Christie?  Or John Dickson Carr?  Or Edmund Crispin?  Or Dorothy L. Sayers?


In contrast with his later books, RM's early work may not dig deep into the lurid pasts of dysfunctional families, but it's damn interesting on its own merits and comparable to or better than Forties Chandler, in my view.  Imitative?  To some extent, yes.  

There's violence, to be sure.  Archer gets sapped with the best of the private dicks and is somehow as resistant to serious concussion as Chandler's Philip Marlowe.  And Archer at this time was more flippant and wisecracking in the manner of Marlowe  "You caught my with my veracity down," he tells a hood.  "When you cock a gun at me it breaks up my conversation."  On another occasion he comments, "I sneered back," a characteristic Marlowe response.

There are plenty of Marlowe style similes and doubtlessly some of them are overelaborate, like Chandler though of themt, and misfire.  But overall the writing is the stuff of of beauty: "a tarnished gold Christ writhed on a dark wood cross"; "The bottles was thickly crusted with the meltings of other candles, like clotted blood"; "boys with hot-rod bowels, comic-book imaginations"; "The night died gradually, bleeding away in words"--there's lots of lines like that and it make the book come alive.

RM was 27 years younger than Chandler, with a brilliant, challenging wife and a precocious though troubled daughter.  I think he had more genuine contact with mid-century life than Chandler and that contact informs his writing and enhances the social realism of it.  I should mention here that there's a smashing sequence at a "professional" wresting arena.

The plotting is first rate too.  RM even deigns to include material clues The Way Some People Die!  I've defended Chandler's plotting, which is pretty good in several books in my opinion, but in his heyday RM was the better plotter of the two men.

And Archer does have empathy, particularly for several females he encounters in the case: a young teenage heroin addict and player of the badger game; Galley's mother and Galley herself--though the latter is a more enigmatic preposition altogether.  Pious Mrs. Lawrence pronounces of her only child: "She's always been so fascinating to men, and she's never realized how evil men can be," while a doubtful friend of Galley's ("If Audrey Graham was Galley's best friend, she had no friends") tells Archer that, to the contrary, Galley "was crazy for men."  What is the story behind Galley, Galatea, whose name recalls the mythical statue carved of ivory by Pygmalion of Cyprus, which springs into beauteous life?

After terming Raymond Chandler "fussy and old womanish," Julian Symons ruefully confessed: "It is disconcerting, to me at least, to find that a a writer of tough crime stories is like this....I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised.  Most British crime writers are amiable neutered tabbies, but I expected Chandler to be different."  Of RM, however, he added: "Ross Macdonald is a quiet and gentle man, but beneath the gentleness you sense a reserve of streel.  I didn't feel this in Chandler."

Symons deemed Chandler and Macdonald comparably important crime writers, though over both of them he favored Hammett, whom he deemed the toughest of them all.  Hammett "always behaved," noted Symons, citing a Hammett friend, "as if he wasn't going to live beyond Thursday week."  But for me RM in his tough phase was tough enough.  I think it's time we started giving the best of his early, "Chandleresque" Lew Archer books more respect.  The Way Some People Die is hard enough and strong enough to last long in any crime writers pantheon.

On the Occasion of Hitch's 123rd birthday: Mending the Reputation of "Torn Curtain" (1966):

For two decades film director Alfred Hitchcock, whose 123rd birthday was on August 13, had such a great run in Hollywood: Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicions (1941), Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960).  (I think Hitch's Agatha Chistie-ish mystery film Stage Fright [1950], which I rather like, was actually a British production.)

That's 20 films (21 counting Stage Fright) in twenty years, most or even all of them arguably classics of film!  And that's not even counting the comparative "duds," ostensibly: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) (Hitch does screwball, pretty well, acturally), The Paradine Case (1947) (yaaaaaawn), Under Capricorn (1948) (zzzzzzzz).  I mean, this guy was practically a film industry unto himself.

After the hugely influential Psycho, Hitch slowed down, comparatively, making just six more films before his death in 1980: The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976).  

Torn Curtain seems to be a film that tends not to get much respect, a certain scene excepted (see below).  The critics at the time didn't like it--though the film, starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, was a modest box office hit--and it hasn't really undergone major "reassessment" over the years, in contrast with some other undervalued Hitch films.  I finally watched it for the first time on Saturday the 13th, and I have to say I rather enjoyed it.  It's derivative of earlier Hitchcock films in a lot of ways, but in my eyes derivative Hitch is better than no Hitch at all--not to mention most other films.  

In retrospect, Torn Curtain seems like a sort of last hurrah for Hitch, unless we count his genial minor screwball crime coda, Family Plot, a throwback to his English films of the Thirties.  I still haven't seen the "starless" (by American standards, anyway) Topaz, but I've always found the serial murderer film Frenzy utterly repellent and compelling evidence of Hitch's putative misogyny, about which his former leading actress Tippi Hendren has spoken out and written.  Torn Curtain, however, is classic Hitch in a lot of ways, the sort of romantic suspense thriller with big name attractive leads that he had made so successfully throughout his career.

In Torn Curtain Paul Newman--apparently Hitch wanted Cary Grant again, but he, now past 60, was on the verge of retirement; he would have been twice Julie Andrews' age--plays nuclear scientist and university professor Michael Armstrong and Julie Andrews his loyal (but how loyal?) secretary and fiancée Sarah Sherman.  The film opens picturesquely with the couple on an ocean liner in a fjord off the coast of Norway. (There is some location shooting in the film, though it is minimal.)  

The fjords are alive with the sound of passion! 
Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) in bed with Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman)

In an ill Cold War omen, the temperature on board is freezing, the ship's heating being on the fritz, but Michael and Sarah have piled into bed together under blankets and coats to keep warm.  This is the sort of cutesy couples stuff Hitch had been putting in his films for years, but here it's made clear that our unmarried heroine is not virginal.  (Neither is Janet Leigh in Psycho, of course, but she gets severely punished for her transgressions.)  

We get to see Newman's bare chest, the first of several times in the film, which is not surprising since he was probably deemed the sexiest American man in film at the time.  Newman even gets his own "shower scene," like Janet Leigh in Psycho, though things end better for him!

Paul Newman unbuttons himself.

Soon Sarah finds that Michael, who is supposed to be speaking at a scientific conference, is planning instead to fly over the "iron curtain" to East Berlin!  Now what is that about?  Naturally, Sarah gets a seat on the same plane to find out what her man is up to--and she finds to her dismay that he is defecting!  Of course it all gets more complicated than that, as you may imagine. 

It seems that Michael is playing his own double game....

Eventually the film turns into Hitch's fave, a flight and pursuit thriller, as Michael and Sarah have to flee for their lives from East Germany with the "MacGuffin." (This is Hitch's term for the prized object people want in the film--this time it's in Michael's head.)  

In the middle of the film comes its most famous and praised sequence, where Michael and a supposed  "farmer's wife" (Carolyn Conwell) who is working with American intelligence are caught in the act, as it were, by Michael's sinister East German security minder, Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) and, well, they simply have to murder him, even though Michael, a university professor, has no idea, really, how to go about it.  And, to be sure, the murder does not go exactly as planned.  Gromek proves to have a horrific Rasputin-like indestructibleness.  

Murder isn't easy.

Even people who don't like Torn Curtain praise this sequence and it really is bloody brilliant, though the grimness it rather at odds with the tone of much of the rest of the film.  I think this gets at much of the problem the film has had with critics.  Torn Curtain is a Sixties spy film, but despite the continued popularity of the arch James Bond franchise, the tone of spy films in the Sixties was getting bleaker and more "realistic."  

Just the year before the release of Torn Curtain, critics and audiences alike applauded The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, adapted from John le Carre's jaded novel and starring a world-weary Richard Burton in an Oscar-nominated performance. The film, incidentally, was directed by Martin Ritt, who directed Paul Newman in four films, including his praised Sixties performances in Hud (best actor nomination) and Hombre.

Both the opening and ending scenes in Torn Curtain are cutesy couples scenes (cleverly matched) that would have been at home in any of Hitch's older films but feel somewhat out of place here.  So many of the sequences are reminiscent of older Hitchcock films, in fact, but the tone fits at least in most cases and they are nicely done on their own terms for the most part.  

There's the extended sequence where Michael and Sarah are fleeing East Germany on a defectors' group bus, which recalls the scene in the train car with the circus "freaks" in Saboteur.  The brilliantly done ballet sequence near the end of the film recalls the Fifties version of The Man Who Knew Too Much as wells as Saboteur and the The Thirty-Nine Steps.  Michael and Sarah have to hide in baskets at one point, recalling, as I recollect, The Lady Vanishes.  When Paul Newman falls (after being tripped) down a flight of stairs, he looks like Martin Landau in Psycho.  When Carolyn Conwell holds up that butcher's knife to stab Gromek, we're reminded of Anthony Perkins. The farmhouse is an unervingly lonely and  isolated rural building, reminiscent of the Dutch windmill hideout in Foreign Correspondent.  You might almost expect a crop dusting plane to appear (North by Northwest).

Two Pairs of Blue Eyes: Michael and his helper are not thrilled to welcome Gromek.

But who cares if Hitch is imitating himself, it's damned entertaining, or at least I thought it was.  Another criticism this film gets is aimed at the leads, Newman and Andrews.  As already mentioned, Newman was not Hitch's choice, and nor was Andrews.  He was "saddled" with them as it were because they were huge stars.  

Torn Curtain came between Paul Newman's hits Harper and Hombre, while Julie Andrews had just come off Mary Poppins (best actress Oscar) and The Sound of Music and had Thoroughly Modern Millie in the pipeline, though her film career was soon to take huge hits with the musical bombs Star! and Darling Lili and would not recover for some time as Hollywood tried to figure out what to do with their on the whole wholesome star in the Swinging Seventies. 

a couple apart

Like everyone else Andrews wanted to work with Hitchcock, but Hitch had wanted Eve Marie Saint, the female lead from North by Northwest.  I have to say I think Saint would have been better than Andrews (or, say, Newman's distinguished actress wife, Joanne Woodward, who was in Alfred Hitchcock Presents).  

Andrews distractedly reminds me in this film of a koala bear with her prominent eyes and boofie head of hair, and I find her rather bland, but the role really is not really a very substantive one anyway, so I'm not sure it matter that much.  (Andrews does nail a scene where she called upon, finally, to lose her temper.)  It is true you kind of expect her to break out in song at any moment, as Hitch supposedly complained.

Newman gets dinged for being sullen, but I think people are reading into the performance the fact that Newman and Hitch did not get along personally.  Newman was one of those younger "method" actors who wanted to have long, intense discussions about his character with the director and Hitch has no time for that. When Newman asked his director what his motivation was, so the story goes, Hitch drolly responded, "your motivation is you salary."  But Newman was right: his character is underwritten and the script had to be rushed because Julie Andrews had only a short window in which to participate in the filming (another reason not to have hired her).

another couple apart

I think Newman does fine, though, though like Ryan O'Neal in the Seventies screwball comedy What's Up, Doc?, he seems too fit and tan to be a college professor!  If Newman's character is limited, it's probably more due to the script, which really does not give him any big speeches to explain himself.  His character is supposed to be hampered by the fact that he does not want his girlfriend trailing him and he cannot explain to her what he is up to.  He is tongue-tied, in short.  The most important thing, however, is that Newman steps up to the plate during the Gromek murder scene, the pivotal piece in the film.

Footsteps will follow till I'm dead: Michael tries to evade his determined pursuer Gromek

Critics have also faulted Hitchcock's continued reliance in Torn Curtain on stage bound locations, particularly the use screen projection and matte paintings, the latter of which is definitely evident in the sequence at the East Berlin art museum and the hilltop reconciliation scene between Newman and Andrews.  It is definitely old-fashioned by 1966, but nevertheless the "footsteps" museum cat-and-mouse pursuit with Michael and Gromek manages to be quite suspenseful due to the photography and the sound effects.

Gromek rises
You can't keep a bad man down

Speaking of Gromek, there are numerous secondary characters in this film and the actors playing these parts strike me as uniformly terrific.  Aside from Gromek, who as mentioned above  is really memorably played by German actor Wolfgang Kieling (It doesn't hurt that his character, even with his limited screen time, is better written than either Newman's or Andrews'), Carolyn Conwell as the "farmer's wife" really makes an impression.   

Why did Conwell not have a bigger career, I wonder; she is really good and intense here and looks like Liv Ullmann, yet her primary acting work seems to have been for a quarter century on the soap opera series The Young and the Restless.  

Anyway, besides these Kieling and Conwell, there are also:

Hansjorg Felmy as the handsome, dapper East German security chief

Native Austrian Jew Ludwig Donath as the irascible University of Leipzig scientist from whom Michael hopes to extract information (he would have made a great Dr. Priestley)

Gunter Strack as another East German university professor and bespectacled minder to Michael and Sarah

American Jew David Opatashu, a familiar presence from American television in later years, as the head of the East German defectors' group

Gisela Fischer, another German Jew whose family fled the Nazis, as an agent of the defectors group (an attractive woman and a medical doctor, she functions as a sort of romantic engagement for Newman--in two scenes he respectively dances with and disrobes for her--and admittedly she is more interesting than our own Sarah Truehart)

Showstopper: Tamara Toumanova

Former émigré Russian ballet prima donna Tamara Toumanova as, yes, an East German (?) ballet star, a particularly nosy and nasty one (she pops up three times in the film and has a great story arc; one of her bits on stage during a performance of Tchaikovsky's Francesca de Rimini is highly dramatic and recalls another brilliant scene from the Thirties Hitchcock film Young and Innocent)

And, last but certainly not least, Lily Kedrova, another Russian émigré who the pervious year had won the best supporting actress for her performance in Zorba the Greek.  She appears late in the film and chews the scenery terrifically in three scenes.  In contrast with Newman and Andrews, it seems this darling Lily made a big hit with Hitch and his wife and he refused to trim any of her bits when the film was edited.  She plays a colorful former Polish countess who is desperate to escape from the Eastern Bloc to the United States.  Some critics dismiss her performance as ham.  It is, to be sure, but it's juicy, succulent ham.  

Countess Kuczynska (Lily Kedrova) needs sponsors!

Kedrova's role was intended as a nod to all the captive peoples of the Eastern Bloc, and it is indeed striking how many of the members of this cast were refugees from totalitarian regimes, be they fascist or communist.  Several of them came to America, where one could be free, although ironically their castmate Wolfgang Kieling, who compellingly played the menacing Gromek (who likes to chew gum and talk at the same time about the days he spent living in New York City), decided to defect to East Germany after witnessing the Watts race riots at first hand while shooting Torn Curtain at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.  

Upon his defection Kieling denounced West Germany as a handmaiden of the the United States, which he vociferously condemned as the most dangerous menace to the world, committing egregious "crimes against the Negro and the people of Vietnam."  Still, he died in Hamburg, West Germany in 1986 (he was only 61), which leads me to conclude that he may not have been so crazy with life in East Germany either.

Certainly Torn Curtain presents a much different view of the world than Kieling's, one that would have been at home with Hitch's wartime films from the Forties: America as a beacon of liberty for beleaguered sufferers from shattered European nations.  No doubt that view held less currency in the deeply conflicted Sixties, but just ask the Ukrainians about it today, in our troubled times.

Monday, August 8, 2022

It Was a Blue Novel You Wrote for Me: The Blue Hammer (1976), by Ross Macdonald

"Give Me One More Song to Go." --"Blue Letter" (1975), Fleetwood Mac

Three years separate Ross Macdonald's penultimate Lew Archer detective novel, Sleeping Beauty (1973), from his final one, The Blue Hammer (1976).  During these years Macdonald's affliction with Alzheimer's Disease, from which he began showing symptoms as early as 1971, the year The Underground Man was published, worsened.  After 1976 he was unable to get another novel off the ground (although he completed a  never used screenplay for his novel The Instant Enemy in 1978) and by late1980 he could no longer compose letters.  He stopped recognizing people the next year, and in late 1982 he was placed in a care home, where he lived for seventh months until his untimely demise at the age of 67.  

Black Lizard edition of Blue Hammer

Alzheimer's and dementia are tragic at any age and with any person but it's especially poignant in the case of a celebrated writer who started suffering from the disease so early in life, as early as the age of 55.  Alzheimer's ended RM's writing career and finally his life, but how did it impact his final books?  His biographer, Tom Nolan, says there is evidence of RM's affliction in the last book, The Blue Hammer.  He notes that a high school teacher wrote RM a letter pointing out narrative errors in the book.  RM thanked him and asked him to proofread his next Archer opus, which of course never came.  Earlier California crime writer William Campbell Gault had at RM's request proofread the book and suggested numerous and substantial edits, which RM without demur made.  RM dedicated the novel to Gault.

Another friend who saw the manuscript, Robert Easton, "was shocked to find uncharacteristic lapses in tone and diction," Nolan imparts, and "he suggested various revisions in word choice and structure," all of which RM made, again without complaint--very unusual for a writer!

I haven't read The Underground Man yet (one of three RMs left that I haven't read), but I have read RM's last two and I can say that, while I found Sleeping Beauty mostly a chore to get through, it was not the slog that The Blue Hammer was.  Hammer is certainly not the equivalent of the last novel that Agatha Christie wrote, Postern of Fate (1973)--a disastrous book though one oddly winsome in its sheer dementedness (I use that last word advisedly, since the octogenarian Christie seems clearly to have been suffering from dementia when she wrote it, as speech experts have since argued)--but to me Hammer obviously is the work of an author with failing power: not the power to conceive a complex narrative, but the power to carry out and complete it.

"I Owe It All to Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle...."--"I Owe It All," Something's Afoot (1972)

1974 saw the publication of Ross Macdonald Selects Great Stories of Suspense, which included four crime novels, including Agatha Christie's Miss Marple saga, 4.50 from Paddington.  During the time when RM was putting the book together he corresponded with his intimate pen friend and highbrow fan girl, author Eudora Welty, about the project, discussing with her what authors merited inclusion in the tome.

Both RM and Welty, it turns out, were Christie enthusiasts.  RM wrote Welty in September 1973:

I'm sorry (for my own sake) if I gave the impression that my anthology will exclude detective stories. On the contrary, it will probably include a Christie (what do you think of is Miss Marple? I like her, and as of now propose to use What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw [the American title of 4:50 from Paddington], which moves beautifully.) and, if I can get away with it, include a Margaret Millar [RM's crime novelist wife].  

Margaret Millar was another cunningly twisty plotter.  Welty shared RM's admiration for Christie, writing RM:

Yes, I do like What "Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw"--that's the train one, isn't it--also I like "Mrs. McGinty's Dead"--do you remember that's Poirot and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver--Christie is endlessly diverting to me.

endlessly diverting

RM and Welty found occasion to discuss Agatha Christie again on the occasion of the Queen of Crime's death in January 1976.  


Just now I heard on the news that Agatha Christie has died.  Was she a friend?  I remember hearing from Elizabeth Bowen, who came to know her well, what a marvelous person she was.  She really was an era all in herself, wasn't she? 


No, I never knew Agatha Christie except through her books.  I think she wrote well, don't you? People I know who have known her have nothing but praise for her courtesy and goodwill.  She was even modest.

How, in contrast Christie was, RM might have been thinking, with Raymond Chandler, who in his correspondence notoriously termed RM an imitative "literary eunuch."  (Ouch!)  In a series of interviews with RM that Rolling Stone writer Paul Nelson conducted in 1976, the year The Blue Hammer was published, RM, who bittelry felt Chandler's derision, at one point exploded, when being questioned about Chandler, either "Chandler tried to kill me!" or "Chandler tried to murder me!" according to varying recollections.  (Nelson at RM's request erased his outburst from the tape.)  These interviews with RM, which are fascinating, were published in 2015, the centenary of RM's birth in a lovely coffee table book entitled It's All One Case (drawing on a line from The Zebra-Striped Hearse).

The Blue Hammer appeared in July of 1976, about six months after Christie passed away, and, when reading it for the first time recently, I was struck by how much it resembled a Christie novel in terms of plotting, if not in tone.  There are even specific echoes of what were several then-recent Christie novels, the author's last several books: 


Nemesis (1971) (long buried body in greenhouse)

Elephants Can Remember (1972) (murder in past, siblings and impersonations)

Postern of Fate (1973) (more murders in the past, along with repetitiveness in the telling)


There's even, to go back to a much earlier Christie book, a mysterious man in a brown suit.  The exact words "the man in the brown suit" are even uttered by Lew Archer, specifically recalling the title of that 1924 Christie novel.  Were these deliberate nods from RM, or, considering his declining mental state, could they have been unconscious borrowings on his part?  He had been thinking a lot of late about Christie and her work.

"I've worked on several dozen murder cases, many of them involving multiple murders.  And in nearly every case the murders were connected in some way.  In fact, the deeper you go into a series of crimes, or any set of circumstances involving people who know each other, the more connectedness you find."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"I'll be glad to explain.  It may take a little time."

"I don't quite follow that."

"It's a fairly complex chain of events."

I sat in my car in the failing afternoon and tried to straighten out the case in my mind.

--Lew Archer Investigates in the The Blue Hammer

His newest--his best yet--
his coast-to-coast bestseller

While Raymond Chandler is seen, not altogether fairly, as a slapdash plotter who cared nothing about plotting, terming it disparagingly "coolie labor," RM loved plotting.  Indeed one might argue he loved it too well. 

Sometimes RM's plotting strikes me, in its very ingenuity, as fundamentally odds with his serious intent as a writer.  The plot of The Blue Hammer might have been a lovely adornment in a Christie novel, but in an ostensible "serious novel" which has "transcended the mystery genre," as RM's later novels were said to do, I think its problematic.  

I don't see how The Blue Hammer can be said to transcend the genre when its ingenious, although frankly implausible and even absurd plot, drags it back down again into fairyland of classic detective fiction.  

It is, indeed, the sort of baroque plot you might have found not only in a Christie but in early period Ellery Queen; and that is about as far removed from reality as imaginable, at least in Anglo-American mystery.  Golden Age detective novels often are accused of being filled with cardboard characters, plot puppets whose strange fates no one can really care about.  Well, in my view there is not a single memorable character in The Blue Hammer.  

All of them wear masks which come from RM's by now very familiar box of stage props.  There's the boneheaded, angry father, the discontented, frigid wife, the misunderstood and confused boy and girl.  I didn't care about any of these people.  To be sure, the book does have serious intent, but it doesn't have living characters, rather a ghastly company of drear, dysfunctional ghosts and zombies.  Christie's characters, often much criticized (though not by RM), live far more than RM's, at least in this book.

RM's writing is flatter and grayer than it was in the past too.  I went back and compared the writing in The Blue Hammer with that in his third third Lew Archer detective novel, The Way Some People Die (1951), one of RM's supposed synthetic Chandler imitations, and the comparison does not favor The Blue Hammer.  The prose in Die moves and scintillates; that in Hammer stumbles and bumbles and only very occasionally flashes.  And there is such repetition, with Archer and other characters continually repeatedly basic plot points, as if the author himself needed reminding of them, or had forgotten that he had mentioned them.  (Granted, the plot is very involved.)

[My son William has] been dead for over thirty-two years," says a character on page 213, before repeating "My son William died thirty-two years ago" on page 215.  These repetitious conversations seem interminable, numbing the reader like Novocain.  At least they did this reader.

Characters keep expressing their confusion to Archer, recalling eldelry Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and the other characters in the last novel which Agatha Christie wrote, Postern of Fate, composed by Christie when she clearly was in a state of senile decay, as they used to say in vintage mysteries.  Granted RM manages, unlike Christie in Postern, finally to clear things up--more or less--but this is not to say he plausibly explains.  He doesn't.

In his pan of the novel at the time it was published, New York Times Book Review critic Anatole Broyard wrote:

Anatole Broyard

A fully imagined character is not altogether at the disposal of his creator.  He acquires a certain autonomy, based on qualities attributed to him by the author, who often unconsciously makes him richer and more complex than he had originally planned.  This is one of the elements that makes good fiction an adventure for the author as well as for the characters and the reader.

In "The Blue Hammer" by Ross Macdonald, things are just the other way around.  Anyone can be made to do just about anything....To try to unravel this Chinese box of circumstance on the evidence of anyone's motives--the classical way to read a mystery novel--is impossible.  You just have to wait until Mr. Macdonald tells you why so and so did such and such....

The novel is compulsively tied up in an almost endless series of knots.  Mr. Macdonald's motto seems to be: Give them enough rope and they will knot it.  This does not, however, have the effect of making his people complex: They resemble, rather, a group of birds--parrots, perhaps--mindlessly beating their wings against the cage of the plot.

Broyard outlines myriad implausibilities in the plot, spoiling a great deal of it along the way, for shame.  Yet I have to concede his points: I agree with him.  I found there was ingenuity to The Blue Hammer, but an almost total lack of plausibility.  This might not be a problem in a classic Ellery Queen novel from the early Thirties, an era when many still proudly prized ingenuity over plausibility (actually, though, I think it would be a problem there too); but in a sober novel from a writer boosted as a serious and significant American novelist with important things to say about the human condition, it is, I think, fatal.

Let me outline the murder plot of RM's book below, with SPOILERS galore, be warned:

There were these two half-brothers in Arizona, Richard Chantry and William Mead, sons of copper magnate Francis Chantry.  William is the illegitimate son of Francis (but see below) and Mildred Mead, an artist's model who apparently had sex with half the men in the state.  Both men were artists and Richard, while William was away during World War Two, stole both William's work and his "girl," Francine, and then, when William returned in 1943, murdered him for good measure.  Then Richard married Francine, who apparently knew about the murder, and moved with her to Santa Teresa, California, where he carried on painting and became a local hero.

Then in 1950 Gerard Johnson, an old army buddy of the late William, paid a visit on Richard with William's widow and son in tow, apparently with suspicions about William's death.  Richard killed him and buried him in his greenhouse.  Francis knew about this evidently, as well as their swarthy manservant Rico.  (I don't believe we ever learn his last name.)  Then, "as if in penance," Richard staged his disappearance to live, as a virtual prisoner at a house in the same town, as Gerard Johnson, a drunken recluse, with William's widow, Sarah, who knew about the murder (s) too, and her son Fred.  Wait, what?

What the hell--I mean, heck--
I just don't get it!  Gee whiz, those 
people were nuts!

Okay, let's keep going.  Richard kept painting in seclusion and I think around 1963 produced a "memory painting" of Mildred Mead, which at some point was bought by a Ruth Biemeyer, the unhappy wife of Jack Biemeyer, a Chantry relation who took over running the Chantry Arizona copper mine until he retired, moving with Ruth to Santa Teresa.  This couple has a daughter, Doris, a drugged out college girl flower child who has taken up, kinda sorta, with Fred, a professional student type who works at the art museum.

Fred steals the memory painting because he somehow intuits that it might be a Chantry and he "unconsciously" intuits that his father, who painted it, might really be Richard Chantry; and he wants  definitively to identify it.  (Query: How?)  

Crafty Richard, however, steals the painting back and also, while he's about it, kills two men, art dealer Paul Grimes, and artist Jacob Whitmore, who were involved in purchasing the painting from Sarah Johnson and selling it to Ruth Biemeyer, in order to protect his identity.  (Query: Do memory paintings hold up in court as proof of murder?)

Ruth bought the painting, by the way, because her husband had slept with Mildred Mead too--who hadn't?--and she unconsciously wanted to guilt trip him by hanging it on the wall.  Wait, what?  

Have you followed this so far?  Let me know if I got something wrong.  It's possible!  But wait, there's more.  RM typically produced last minute twists in his books and there's one, or two, here:  Richard Chantry, aka Gerard Johnson, has really been William Mead all along! It seems he murdered Richard back in '43, rather than vice versa.  And, brace yourselves people: William is really Jack Biemeyer's son!  

In the last pages of the book, Jack and Archer go visit William in jail, where William tearfully acknowledges that, yup, he's William!  Fade to black, or rather blue.

The last line of fiction that RM ever published is "Jack Biemeyer stepped forward and touched his son's wet face."  I guess this is supposed to be moving.  I was thinking, rather, about how William killed four--I think it was four--people, not to mention kidnapped Archer's new (first?) girlfriend, pretty newspaper writer Betty Jo Siddon and tied her naked in a chair in an attic while he painted her picture.  (Don't ask.)


Frankly, my reaction to this book is that it's all rather silly.  It doesn't help that the telling is so repetitious and dull.  There's another part of the book where RM gets off on a discussion of the reputed bisexuality of several of the male characters (I lost track), which has nothing to do with the rest of the book and goes precisely nowhere.  Is it supposed to be a red herring, or was RM just exploring his sexual issues, like he did his daddy issues and wife issues and daughter issues and grandson issues?  Granted, the man had a lot of issues! In previous books he was better able to absorb them into the narrative in an entertaining and illuminating way, however.

RM also introduces a few minor black characters, in an attempt to diversify his fictional world of mostly lily-white wealth.  Probably aware on some level that this might well be his last novel, RM also narratively bookends Hammer with his first Archer mystery, The Moving Target, an altogether better book, synthetic Chandler or not.  A couple of times Archer mentions his (justifiable) killing of a character in Target, contrasting his violent past with his pacific (and duller) present.  There's also a visit to a kooky mountaintop religious cult like the one in Target, where it had much more point and purpose.

This is a better finish for an author than Postern of Fate was for Christie or The Hungry Goblin for John Dickson Carr, to be sure.  The swansongs of longtime prolific mystery writers often are sadly disappointing, and The Blue Hammer, in my view, is no exception.  What is exceptional are the raves which The Blue Hammer received from critics and the nearly 50,000 hardcover copies it sold.  

Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty, probably RM's number one fan, gushed to him of the novel: "I applauded it all.  It was an interesting subject and I thought you made the painting story and family story and murder story astonishingly believable in their multiple connectings and connections."   Welty observed that "you were allowing yourself a little freer reign, more ease of the old strictness...and more scope. and more length"--a charitable way of describing the meandering, repetitive narrative.

English Crime writer and critic Julian Symons, a transatlantic friend of RM, told RM that The Blue Hammer "was your best book for a long time, and one of the very best you've written."  

For his part, HRF Keating, another English crime writer and critic who often echoed Symons in his critical judgments, included the novel in his book Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987), pronouncing it "in many ways...the peak of [RM's] achievement."  What a damning thing to say about his earlier books!

I do agree with Keating that "the blue hammer" image which gave rise to the book title is a moving one and beautifully written (although irrelevant to actual mystery plot).  However, this is a couple of sentences out of a very long and tiring narrative.  

I'll have something to say about a much better RM book soon.  The Blue Hammer also made me want to take another look at Margaret Millar's Ask for Me Tomorrow, an altogether better book which she published the same year, 1976, as her husband published Hammer.  The fact that RM has gotten so much more attention over the last half-century and counting compared to MM may attest to sexism--unconscious, of course--in the world of American crime fiction and the powerful psychic hold of the PI novel.  

He is hugely important in the genre, of course, but then so is she too.  They were a remarkable crime writing couple.  Just as it recalls certain early Seventies Agatha Christie titles, The Blue Hammer also recalls, on one key plot point in particular, Margaret's then recent recent crime novel Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970).  

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Oh, Ross! Ross Macdonald and His Critics

If ever a crime writer has had waves and troughs with critics it's been Ross Macdonald

Since his death Ross Macdonald has remained steadily in print, to be sure with Mysterious Press' Black Lizard imprint having taken over producing his books in the mid-1990s.  When Tom Nolan published his fine biography of the author in 1999, however, the New York Times Book Review handed off the task of assessing Nolan's book--and Macdonald's stature as a writer--to someone, Terry Teachout, who was distinctly unimpressed with both.  

Terry Teachout, who died earlier this year, was, like the late conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the metropolis of Missouri's "Little Dixie" region; yet Teachout, though he was, like Limbaugh, a "heartland" conservative, was no philistine.  Long ago he moved to New York City and established himself as a music and literary critic and a member of the city's "intellectual elite," a term that sends shivers down the spines of today's Mega MAGA types, who associate the pointed-headed professor types with CRT, BLM, LGBTQ+ and GKWE.  (That would be "God knows what else.")

Himself one of those liberal academic types by education, California author Ross Macdonald, an ostensible hard-boiled crime writer, had been embraced, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, by much of the country's intellectual elite as well as the New York Times Book Review itself.  Indeed, it was a front page review in the NYTBR in 1969 by author William Goldman--who scripted the film Harper, the 1966 film version of Macdonald's first Lew Archer detective novel, The Moving Target--of Macdonald's fourteenth Lew Archer detective novel, The Goodbye Look, that finally catapulted Macdonald, after two decades, onto the national bestseller charts.  

Two years later the acknowledged Great Writer Eudora Welty, a tremendous mystery buff, gave a similarly euphoric front page reception to Macdonald's' next Lew Archer detective novel, The Underground Man. Macdonald's hardcover sales more than quadrupled with all the attention.  

However, what the NYTBR giveth, it can taketh away, and two years later, it down right tooketh, publishing not one but two pans of Macdonald's penultimate Lew Archer detective novel, Sleeping Beauty, one of them by prominent literary critic Anatole Broyard.  Broyard would similarly pan Macdonald's last Lew Archer detective novel, The Blue Hammer, published in 1976.  Macdonald died seven years later, not long after having been institutionalized due to his incapacitation from Alzheimer's Disease.  

At the same time, Macdonald's popularity began a slow but continual decline, as people rediscovered his hard-boiled predecessors Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who were altogether more hard-boiled and "fun."  RM may have been deemed the third in the so-called hard-boiled triumvirtate, but he was the gang's weak sister, comparatively speaking.  Surely a great part of the reason Macdonald had briefly caught a big wave, as it were, in the late Sixties and early Seventies was that his books captured the ephemeral gestalt of the times (to use a word which gets used in Macdonald's books).  

Ross Macdonald (1915-1983)

From the publication of the seventh Lew Archer detective novel, The Doomsters, in 1958, Macdonald, reflecting his own personal problems, grew increasingly obsessed with multi-generational family dysfunction and traumatic mental disorder, troubled youth, obtuse parents and the "generation gap."  His "tough" private investigator, Lew Archer, transforms into more of a kindly family therapist and the hard-boiled tone of the early books gets soft and runny--although the books could hardly be called "sunny side up."  To the contrary, the later ones in particular are sober, oh-so sober, with any sense of humor from the earlier books dissipated.    

You might guess from these remarks that I prefer the earlier Ross Macdonald books, a distinctly minority view today, seemingly.  Certainly I think several of the early books are underrated.  

Often the earlier books are dismissed as synthetic imitations of Raymond Chandler (Chandler himself nastily dismissed them as such.)  I disagree with this assessment, for in them one can find discern, under a hard shell, many of the sensitive themes found in Macdonald's later books.  They are also crisply written and plotted.  

Personally my favorite books by RM--I will call him this henceforward--are what might be termed middle-period Archers, The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) and Black Money (1966), though I think some of the early books are terrific too.  Although I read both over a dozen years ago and need to reread them, I was underwhelmed at the time with The Galton Case (1959) and The Chill (1964), though many deem those RM's best books.  On the other hand, the early Archer The Drowning Pool (1950) was not to my taste at all.  

Sometimes you just can't decide about a guy.

I tend to agree with the naysayers of RM's last books, however, that the author ironically was running out of steam at the time he was receiving his greatest praise and had started, as one critic remarked, writing the same book over and over again.  I still have yet to read The Underground Man (1971) and am reading the very long (100,000 words) The Blue Hammer, for the first time, but I tend to find his books from The Instant Enemy onward repetitious and dull.  I'd prefer reading Chandler's The Big Sleep or the Long Goodbye to RM's Sleeping Beauty or The Goodbye Look any day.

Still, when RM was good, he was very, very good indeed, often brilliant.  I have greatly enjoyed The Moving Target, The Way Some People Die, The Ivory Grin (the book that hooked me on RM), the non-series Meet Me at the Morgue and The Ferguson Affair and the aforementioned The Zebra-Striped Hearse and Black Money.  I read Zebra recently and it's one of the best detective novels I have read in many decades of reading.  Yet Sleeping Beauty for me was the literary equivalent of an overdose of Nembutal and The Blue Hammer is currently hammering me into senescence.  (I have just passed the halfway point and will struggle to finish it; it is better plotted than its immediate predecessor but Archer's murder investigation is a crawl.)  

Evidently Terry Teachout (getting back to him) once held RM in high esteem, for in Tom Nolan's RM biography, Nolan notes that in the conservative magazine National Review Teachout in 1981 praised RM as "one of this country's most consistently undervalued literary artists."  

Two decades later, however, Teachout proclaimed that, just the opposite, RM was rather overvalued, at least by Tom Nolan.  Teachout expressed bemusement that "anyone" had ever "seriously suggested in print that [RM] was...'a major American novelist.'"  

He continued damningly:

Terry Teachout (1956-2022)
Wait a minute on this Ross Macdonald thing!

What the reader [of Tom Nolan's biography] will not find, alas, is any critical skepticism about the ultimate value of [RM's] work.  Yet such skepticism is clearly in order: returning to the Lew Archer novels for the first time in a decade: I found them repetitive and often dully written...while Archer himself is too good to be true.  Several of the middle period books, like The Zebra-Striped Hearse and The Far Side of the Dollar, are still perfectly readable, but they are also full of naïve dime-store psychologizing.  

[RM] was one of the unfortunate folk for whom therapy took the place of religion, and in retrospect it seems clear that the reason he became so fashionable at the end of the 1960s was that his obsessions were in accords with that naval-gazing decade.  No doubt that explains why he has aged so poorly, especially by comparison with Chandler, whose smoky, side-of-the-mouth prose remains as tartly satisfying as ever.

It's interesting that the NYTBR, which did so much to build up RM's literary reputation, published this extremely dismissive take on him, three decades after the epochal (to crime fiction fans) publication of The Goodbye Look.  One wonders, incidentally, whether Teachout's restrained praise for RM's The Zebra-Striped Hearse and The Far Side of the Dollar as "perfectly readable" was prompted, on his part, primarily by conservative critic Jacques Barzun's strong notices of them Barzun's and Wendell Hertig Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime.

I'd argue there's a certain amount of conservative "idealoguing" behind Teachout's dismmisve assessment of Macdonald.  (Teachout goes on to disparage Lew Archer as a powderpuff male, a "soft-boiled shamus.")  

His New York Times obituary states that Teachout was generally "apolitical" in his criticism, but he was part of Ronald Reagan Eighties generation of conservatives who imagined that the conservative movement would produce a national cultural renaissance on the Right (a view that in Trumpian retrospect seems perhaps a tad overoptimistic); and I think the above take on RM is, again, somewhat ideologically inflected.    

Was sensitive Lew Archer the Phil Donahue
of "hard-boiled" tecs?
Terry Teachout thought so.

For conservatives, the Sixties and Seventies were self-indulgent, liberal Baby Boomer decades that saw the rise of feminism, free love, no-fault divorce, birth control, abortion, same-sex relationships, minority militancy, the breakup of the nuclear family, challenges to the authority of elders, particularly fathers, and the odious omnipresence of the so-called sensitive male, as embodied by Jimmy Carter, Alan Alda and Phil Donahue

You wouldn't catch Chandler wearing his sensitive heart on his sleeve like RM, no sir!  

Tender not tough?
Alan Alda consoles in MASH

Yet you also wouldn't find Chandler, who in his second Philip Marlowe mystery Farewell, My Lovely (1942), gave us the immortal line "The Indian smelled," writing sympathetically about racial minorities or homosexuals, like RM did.  To the contrary, Chandler was more likely, when it came to writing about black people in his letters, to carp  that they didn't make good help around the house anymore.

Didn't Teachout find that that sort of thing "dates" too, like sour cream left in the refrigerator months past its expiration date? 

The truth is writing inevitably dates to some degree, because it represents the values and mores of another time.  The hard-boiled paradigms embodied by Hammett and Chandler and their slavish followers couldn't last forever, the times having changed; and if Ross Macdonald hadn't shifted the paradigm in the Sixties with a great shove of his manful, if sensitive, shoulder, someone else would have done the needful deed.  

I don't know whether Teachout read RM again in the last twenty years of his life, but in fact RM's prose, rather than having "aged so poorly" began capturing readers (and critics) again, when in 2016 the Library of America began republishing his books, following early efforts with Hammett and Chandler.  Tom Nolan, still very much around, has been resoundingly vindicated.

The Moving Target, RM's most reviewed book on Amazon, now has nearly 350 reviews/ratings, though, it must be admitted, Chandler's Big Sleep has ten times as many, at over 3500/ratings.  Sarcasm and pithy snark outsells sensitivity and earnest soulfulness, it seems, but I think RM's books will continue to live, in part because they expanded the limited boundaries of the "mean streets" world of the PI novel.

Maybe Ross' gears got stuck in the late Sixties, but someone had to switch lanes with the machine; and happily he did.  Whether or not he's a "Great American Novelist," RM is a damn important one within the history of crime writing, just as are Hammett and Chandler.