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.


  1. I feel RM's decision to use Archer as a lens rather than a main character works against him, rather; it cools our interest in his stories. But, like his wife, he came up with some marvellous turns of phrase - like 'She was trouble looking for someone to happen to' ['The Wycherly Woman'] and: 'Down in the dark street, sailors were standing around in disconnected attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls waiting for orders.’ ['Sleeping Beauty']

    1. Yes, I've read five books of his lately and it's a mixed bag. But at his peak he was very good and the writing is lovely.

  2. Teachout is not the only one to have commented negatively on Ross MacD's use of psychology; Peter Rozovsky - not a conservative - has done too and with almost similar arguments. Neither was he unique in calling Archer "soft-boiled": it was also a perennial complaint of the noir fundamentalist wing of French mystery critics. Hard-boiled fiction, like GAD, is a very codified genre that comes with some expectations and MacD's main "offence" I think was to defy them.

    1. Xavier, your comment led me to look up Rozovsky with very interesting results! I see he liked the plotting of The Galton Case but hated the psychologizing. His 2011 piece had so many comments, including some from me, near the end, where I am quite critical of RM myself. My initial reaction to RM, including The Galton Case and The Chill and The Drowning Pool, was decidedly unenthusiastic; but I stuck with it and really liked The Ivory Grin and some others. Recently I read Zebra-Striped Hearse and thought it was brilliant. On the other hand, I read Doomsters and Sleeping Beauty and Blue Hammer and didn't like them much.

      Rozovsky very definitely dislikes the psychologizing, particularly the Freudianism. (I noted wryly Archer's use of the term gestalt; Rozovksy derided RM Archer having a "delayed gestalt" in Galton Case.) It definitely put me off The Chill at the time, I even zinged it in an Amazon review. I have no idea of Rozovsky's politics, while I will tell you I was more sympathetic to the Right in the days before Trumpism, as it's called now, but was rally Tea Partyism before that and Buchananism before that and Bircherism and McCarthyism before that.

      I definitely think there can be a political inflection to criticism of RM, just as there is with Mickey Spillane and GA detective fiction, etc. Chandler himself, God knows where he would be. I could definitely see him blasting "woke" attitudes and the progressive left. This is a man who wrote that he would have supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War and never, that I have seen, evinced any sympathy with the civil rights movement, but rather complained how you couldn't trust "colored" domestics. Chandler may have hated psychiatry, but he might have benefitted from some. And God knows Mike Hammer was psychotic.

      Roskovsky highly praised the plotting of RM but then in a 2018 post on he declared he had not been able to "get" RM so it sounds like more reading, if there was more, didn't improve things for him. It's different with me. It's definitely true though that some hard-boiled fans want their hard-boiled, well, hard, regardless of ideology. (And Spillane has liberal fans.) Really, how can you call the later RM books hard-boiled at all? They are family murder dramas.

      Interestingly Jacques Barzun, a conservative of sorts, praised the wisdom about youth in a couple of RM's books, Zebra Striped Hearse and Far Side of the Dollar, though he tired of the stuff by the later books.

  3. A Great American Novelist... and a great Canadian one.

    1. Great Canadian-American crime writer, as was Margaret Millar.

    2. I was thinking though of that phrase the "Great American Novel." Every man--and it always seems it was a man--with writerly inclinations was supposed to want to write it.

  4. I don’t go to crime fiction for dullness and repetition. The sinsofthefather was not an appealing theme to me as a young reader, nnor later, but anyway.Lawrence Block’s book so titled is crisper and more colorful and deeply felt than any MacDonald, to me. He. had an impassioned relationship by mail with Welty, so that rave was certainly not unbiased. IMHO Margaret Millar wrote the far more interesting novels, not relying on a series character or formula.