Saturday, January 21, 2023

Eudora! Eudora! The Fatal Urge to Transcend the Genre: How Ross Macdonald Took the Plunge into the Mainstream and Drowned His Talent

"I seem to be moving further in the direction of the 'mainstream novel,' a development which is deeply satisfying to me."--Ross Macdonald on his novel The Goodbye Look, 1968

I don't know how often these days the phrase "transcend the genre" is used wholly un-self-consciously, but it once was used with great seriousness when referring to certain pet crime writers of the literary set, like Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Eric Ambler, Ross Macdonald, PD James and Dorothy L. Sayers, to name a few names.  Certainly all these writers excelled within the genre, but how many of them actually transcended it?  I assume by this phase what is meant is that they began writing "mainstream literature," with murders.

a book as dull as its cover

In some cases, at least, I think the ostensible transcendent mystery writer simply began writing dull novels, be they mainstream or mystery.  Having completed The Underground Man (1971)--the bestselling detective novel by Ross Macdonald that was famously raved in a 3000+ word review by noted mainstream literature writer  Eudora Welty in the New York Times ("Mr. Macdonald's writing is something like a stand of clean, cool, well-branched, well-tended trees in which bright birds can flash and perch.  And not for show, but to sing.")--I have to conclude that Ross was lured to his artistic destruction by such siren singers as Miss Welty.  No doubt they meant him well, but they enticed a talented mystery writer away from writing entertaining mysteries into composing rather dull ones--or mainstream novels, if you will so have it.

I personally think Ross Macdonald's books got progressively worse between his first critically raved bestseller, The Goodbye Look (1969) and his last one, the convoluted The Blue Hammer (1976).  The Goodbye Look still paid some attention to the elements of mystery plotting, while in The Underground Man, RM's series sleuth, Lew Archer solves the case simply by having gobs of information handed to him when we get near the point for the novel to end.  One gets the impression that Ross is not even really trying anymore, with respect to ingenuity in the mystery plotting, which had been one of his cardinal virtues.  (At his best Macdonald was a much stronger plotter than either Chandler or Hammett.)

The mystery is yet another one by RM with murders and other misdeeds committed fifteen years in the past, but there's nothing particularly clever or ingenious about any of it.  Rather it's all just arduous, both to write, no doubt, and to read.  There's not a single memorable character in the book, unless it's the little boy who ends up getting kidnapped in chapter one.  (There's a nice scene there, probably drawn from real life, of Lew Archer and the boy feeding peanuts to blue jays.)  Otherwise it's Ross' usual miserably unhappy middle-aged couples, imperious oldsters and misunderstood youth, much more dully and lifelessly presented than ever in the past.

There's also a forest fire raging across California in the book, which initially lends some excitement, but that burns itself it out soon enough, while the book itself meanders onward.  (By my count it's around 100,000 words, making it much longer than most of his earlier books, written back when he was an economical writer.)  I gather the fire is supposed to be symbolic of something--the troubled times, or something of the sort.  The point of the novel mostly seems to be about how elders screw up their children, which no doubt caught the tenor of the time, when the "generation gap" was much discussed.  One is reminded of the Philip Larkin poem with the memorable line "They fuck you up your Mum and Dad."    Larkin said in seven words what it takes Ross 100,000 to get across.  There is something to be said for elegant brevity.

Near the end of the novel Lew Archer goes into full family counsellor mode with such pearls of wisdom as "You have the chance to put it back together.  You're the only one who can."  and "Let her know you're human, anyway."  The days when Lew slugged it out with both cops and killers are long gone, though latterly he might possibly talk someone to death.

RM's young people aren't very convincing, being ultimately too sentimentally presented.  They awkwardly use some Seventies lingo and neither they nor anyone else in the book actually uses any real bad language.  Why was Ross so squeamish on this score, by the by?  Even Chandler used bad words, albeit with a dash, three decades earlier.

a happy couple

I get the feeling that Ross was trying to mediate his own personal traumas with his own lost daughter in these later novels, but it's much better done in earlier books.  It's a great irony that this solemn bore of a book sold 50,000 copies in hardcover, over ten times as many as some of his earlier mystery masterpieces, like The Galton Case, which is actually a clever mystery while managing to present some moving characters and present some compelling themes as well.  Does The Galton Case "transcend the genre"?  Damned if I know, but at least it's a damn fine detective novel, from both the puzzle and character standpoint.  I can't ask for more than that myself.  

At least Eudora Welty got closer to Ross as a result of it all, though I don't believe RM's wife, crime novelist Margaret Millar, was crazy about that!  (Indeed, in that sense Eudora's New York Times review might be deemed a highly literary mash note.)  By the way during this period Millar wrote two superior books, considered both as mysteries and novels.  they are Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)and Ask For Me Tomorrow (1976).  By all means read them.  Ross Macdonald enjoyed after long last achieving bestseller status in his lifetime; his wife was not so fortunate.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Missing Children: The Goodbye Look (1969) and The Galton Case (1959), by Ross Macdonald

Wake up and check the mail

Hoping to find a letter from you

But all I find are missing children

Turn on the morning news

Hoping to see a resemblance of you

But all I see are missing children....

--"Missing Children" (2000), by Teddy Thompson 

Ross Macdonald mystery criticism has largely accepted his biographer Tom Nolan's contention that the "mature" Ross Macdonald dates from his books The Doomsters (1958) and more particularly The Galton Case (1959), when, spurred by a personal tragedy concerning his and his wife Margaret Millar's daughter Linda, he stopped imitating Raymond Chandler, found his own voice and developed a "kinder, gentler" hard-boiled fiction, assuming by this point that it was hard-boiled at all.  

I don't want to diminish the significance of The Galton Case, one of Macdonald's best books, but I think this schemata simplifies the author's development as a writer.  Even from his first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, which Chandler himself derisively deemed a pastiche of his own work, Macdonald's own unique voice is discernible amid all the Marlowe-ish wisecracks and attitude.  

Indeed I would include several early Archers among Macdonald's best novels.  My own top RM ten would be as follows (admitting I still have not read Find a Victim and The Underground Man):

The Passing Tramp's Ross Macdonald Top Ten

The Dark Tunnel (1944) (non-series)

The Moving Target (1949)

The Way Some People Die (1951)

The Ivory Grin (1952)

Meet Me at the Morgue (1953) (non-series)

The Galton Case (1959)

The Ferguson Affair (1960) (non-series)

The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)

The Chill (1964)

Black Money (1966)

That's five pre-Doomsters/Galton books!  For me the weakest periods for RM are from the Forties (his three books following The Dark Tunnel) and from the late Sixties and Seventies, this latter period, ironically, when he achieved his greatest fame during his lifetime and penned four bestsellers, beginning with The Goodbye Look.  

She laid the clippers down on a hall 
table but kept the rose, which exactly
matched the color of her mouth.
(p. 5)
"She's a  phony blonde with a big red
sloppy mouth and poisonous eyes."

(p. 16)
cover art by Bantam John Marsh

The late academic, public intellectual and deep-dyed mystery fan Jacques Barzun was a warm RM admirer, but he gave the kiss-off to The Goodbye Look in his (and colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor's) book A Catalogue of Crime

[There are] too many strained metaphors, too many couple whose wives or husbands have deserted, too many crimes committed 15 years earlier, too many people who live together but do not understand each other, and finally, too much of Archer's feeling that these lives and his are identically dreary and pointless.

As mentioned, I still haven't read The Underground Man, which immediately followed The Goodbye Look, but the last two of these late RM's, Sleeping Beauty (1973) and The Blue Hammer (1976), share the essential dreariness of Goodbye Look and the slightly earlier Instant Enemy.  Indeed, when critics of RM say he wrote the same book over and over, I really think they are referring to these last four or five books.  

All of them are packed to the rafters with runaway/kidnapped children, miserable mismatched couples, the insurmountable generation gap, crimes in the past and old sins with long shadows, false identities, extensive psychoanalysis and existential gloom, all acted out by the too numerous and insufficiently memorable characters on a series of too bare stages (usually mansions and hospitals).  

It might well be classic Greek drama, played out on a sparsely furnished amphitheater--appropriately for an author whose works have been called Oedipal!  But additionally, the novels share specific plot points: the stolen box and purloined painting in Goodbye Look and Blue Hammer, the essentially nice, misunderstood college students, the nicked and overdosed upon prescription pills, the crimes going back to World War Two naval service, etc.  To me, cumulatively, it makes for dullish reading.  It seems to me as if RM was running out of plotting inspiration. 

At the height of the Golden Age The Goodbye Look would have been called The Mystery of the Florentine Box, which might actually have made more sense than its actual title.  The stolen box serves as the catalyst to events in Goodbye Look, whereas the term the goodbye look is merely metaphorical, referring to the look you give when you want to kill someone and be killed.  It's a catchy title though!  It also evidently inspired the title of a darkly sardonic 1982 Donald Fagen song, although the lyrics sound a lot more like something from Graham Greene.

Florentine boxes

I recently reread The Goodbye Look and, while I have to tip a nod to the plot's complexity, I would also have to argue that it's overly-complex to the point of murkiness, like a Sophie Hannah novel.  It's one of those books for which you have to diagram the characters, in order to try to keep track of the all those family members across generations and false identities.  For this to really click the characters would have to be more remarkable, but alas they are not.  They are a dull lot.

I'm reminded of PD James' later books (she lived a lot longer than RM so there are a lot more of them), which got longer and longer but for my money were never as memorable or ingenious as her early work.  Industriousness is not the same thing ingenuity, sadly.  Not to mention the unending dreariness in the later RM novels just weighs one down (another similarity with PD James--no wonder she liked RM's books so much--chroniclers of misery love company, apparently!).

Yet it was The Goodbye Look, or rather the front page attention it received in the New York Times Book Review, which led to RM finally achieving bestseller status in the US.  Over the years sales in hardcover of RM's book had inched up from a bare several thousand to 10,000, due to the success of the 1966 Paul Newman film Harper, based on the first Lew Archer detective novel, The Moving Target; yet all that cover space in the Times effectively quintupled RM's hardcover sales for the rest of his life (and led to a boom in paperback reprints).  

In the Times the late William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for Harper, lavishly lauded Macdonald as "one of the best American novelists now operating."  But as to the plot of the mystery Goldman pronounced: "Telling the plot of any novel is unfair.  Telling the plot of an Archer is impossible."  This is pretty close to the truth, at least in regard to the later Archers.  See here my attempt to discuss in detail the unilekly, Byzantine plot of The Blue HammerThe Goodbye Look is a better book than that one, though the plot still gets hard to follow.

Personally, I think one should be able intelligibly to discuss the plot of a mystery novel.  Clarity in mystery plotting is a virtue to my mind, but people who are post-plot in mentality don't think so, I gather. Goldman is interested in RM more as a great novelist than a great mystery writer.  And he's right when he says of Goodbye Look: "Ghosts is [Macdonald's] theme....Nobody writes southern California as Macdonald writes it....there's something unalive about it all."  Sure, but to me it makes for dreary and drab reading.  If I want to take in zombies, I'd sooner watch Shaun of the Dead.


Go back a decade to The Galton Case and there is a lot of similarity in plot and setting and characters yet somehow RM make it live and move much better.  Sure, a great many of the characters of miserable and screwed-up, but the telling is so much more vivid, the settings more varied, the characters more individual, the plotting more dexterous.  And, yes, there's even still some of the hard-boiled snark, for which we owe much to Chandler but some to Macdonald too.  I guess this is the difference between the Fab Fifties and the Psychedelic Sixties, around the time the latter had od'ed on the mayhem of Manson and Altamont.

Massive traditional houses stood
far back from the street, 
behind high masonry walls 
or topiary hedges.
Bantam cover art by John Marsh

Galton Case is really still a transitional work, however, something insufficiently recognized.  There's a partial chapter where Archer gets arrested and handcuffed by some dumb cops (though it's really played more for laughs than toughness), not to mention an entire chapter, set in Reno, Nevada, where Archer gets beaten up--very badly indeed--by a gangster's minions.  I hate that rough stuff and skimmed the chapter, but I still loved Galton Case, because it's compellingly staged, peopled, narrated and, last but not least, plotted.  

The plot, RM's variation on the inspiration for a large number of classic mysteries, the historical Tichborne Claimant case (Mrs. Galton, a rich old widow, hires Archer to find her long lost son John Galton), really zings and there are some beautiful twists.  As Tom Nolan has written, RM draws on his own unhappy Canadian childhood in this one and this adds considerable poignancy and heft to the plot.  And though there is much to depress, the ending has some promise of redemption and uplift.  

The writing on the whole is really quite beautiful, though we have to accept that Archer is capable of these lovely conceits and metaphors.  Admittedly there are a couple of boners, looking ahead to later RM, like "I had a delayed gestalt after I'd given up on the subject" (much ridiculed a dozen years ago here) and "His face looked porous and moist like a deliquescent substance" (Wha--???  This from someone who in this novel admits he doesn't know about Rimbaud or the Praxiteles Hermes!).

Yet then we also have:

The [suitcase] lock was broken, and it fell open.  Its contents emitted  a whiff of tobacco, sea water, sweat and the subtler indescribable odor of masculine loneliness.

With dark circles under them, and heavy eyeshadow on the upper lids, [her eyes] were like two spreading bruises.

Flowers bloomed competitively in the yards.  

It's tough to live with a case for year and then watch it elope with a casual pickup.

I sat there like a penitent while the minute hand of the clock took little pouncing bites out of eternity.

Is The Galton Case really the very best of Ross Macdonald's mysteries?  It's certainly a strong candidate.  And that to my mind makes it one of the finest mysteries, hard-boiled or otherwise.  Say hello to this one if you haven't read it yet.  The Goodbye Look deserves more of a side eye, in my view, despite its front page NYTBR notice and bestselling status.