The Rap Sheet
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What does it say about 20th-century crime novelist Ross Macdonald that he finally--as of this week--has a Library of America volume dedicated to his early work? “That he’s taking his rightful place amongst the acknowledged masters of American literature,” says Tom Nolan, the Los Angeles writer and Wall Street Journal books critic who gave us Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999), certainly the best-yet study of this author’s life and literary endeavors. As Nolan told me during a recent interview--the first part of which was posted today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site--his new Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s comprises some of the most “beautifully written” books Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) produced during the post-World War II era: The Way Some People Die (1951), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Doomsters (1958), and The Galton Case (1959). It also features several “other writings” that illuminate the author’s work on those novels, recount his discovery of detective fiction, and tell of his deliberate efforts to enlarge the genre’s scope.
Even for somebody as familiar with Macdonald’s work as I am (the first crime novel I remember consuming was 1949’s The Moving Target, which introduced his series protagonist, L.A. private eye Lew Archer, and I’ve since enjoyed reading and re-reading the entirety of Macdonald’s oeuvre), holding the brand-new, 900-plus-page Library of America collection in my hands is a treat. Macdonald wasn’t only a terrific crime novelist; he was a terrific novelist who used fictional illegalities as his entry into telling stories--sometimes braided with Freudian issues and Greek tragedy--about families in trouble. As author-playwright Gordon Dahlquist opined in HiLobrow:
Simply in terms of the hard-boiled mystery, the books are audaciously accomplished. Macdonald’s intricate plots are like Sophocles by way of a boa constrictor. His subtle reconfiguration of the detective character tips the Archer books toward social portrait and social critique without the burden of any particular axe being ground. Archer isn’t an avatar of tough virtue for the reader’s vicarious thrill. He may be a catalyst within the stories, but most profoundly and more simply he’s a witness. If [Raymond] Chandler’s novels are about [gumshoe Philip] Marlowe, then Macdonald’s--despite Archer’s fuller realization--are about California. But most remarkable is the compassion with which these unsparing tales are unwound. The compassion is never soft, but feels truthful without being cruel.
Macdonald made Archer a sharp observer of the social condition, a questioner who unpeeled layers of familial strife, jealousy, and disappointment even as he sought answers to whatever obvious mystery lay at the heart of his current yarn. The author, having endured ample woes himself (both as a youngster and as the father of a “wild” daughter, Linda, who killed a 13-year-old boy in a car wreck and later disappeared from college for more than a week) and undergone psychoanalysis as a result, could--through Archer--empathize with his hardship-plagued characters. Not all imaginary shamuses on the clock during the first three quarters of the 20th century demonstrated such understanding. National Public Radio’s Maureen Corrigan, recalling the opening of The Doomsters--in which “a troubled young man bangs at Lew Archer’s door in the wee hours of the morning”--suggests that “Sam Spade would have rolled over in bed and ignored the knock; Philip Marlowe would have been out walking the L.A. streets in the rain; later on, Mickey Spillane would have just shot that annoying predawn visitor. But Lew Archer is as much a social worker, a counselor, a father confessor as he is a private eye. Macdonald gave us a detective with psychological depth; a gumshoe capable of throwing around words like ‘gestalt.’”
That capacity for compassion, Archer’s willingness to excavate the tumbledown remains of a family’s history (and in so many of Macdonald’s later novels, the roots of contemporary misfortunes are traceable to injustices and failures in the past) was one thing that drew me, as it did so many other readers, to Lew Archer’s adventures. After managing--through some miracle that could only have been available to an individual as young and callow as I was at the time--to arrange an interview with Millar/Macdonald in 1980, what I wanted to do most as I sat with him in the dimly lit study of his Santa Barbara, California, home was ask him for a deep analysis of his sleuth-cum-shrink, and inquire where Archer’s path might lead him in the future. Unfortunately, by that point Macdonald was already enduring
the affects of the Alzheimer’s disease that would kill him (in July 1983), and he couldn’t always remember the nuances of his fiction.
(Left) Editor Tom Nolan, photographed by Hal Boucher
Much later, in 1999, when I first had the opportunity to interview Tom Nolan, about his Macdonald biography, I asked him how much his subject’s troubled past had influenced his choice of a career writing about troubled people. “Oh, enormously,” said Nolan. “I think that initially he read certain kinds of books--not just fiction, but non-fiction, psychology, philosophy--to some extent, because he was trying to find ways to deal with life and with his problems. As far as fiction, I'm sure that [Charles] Dickens and that sort of fiction appealed to him because he could identify with the travails of Oliver Twist, and I think authors like [Edgar Allan] Poe and [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, people who probed the psychology of good and evil, or good and bad choices, appealed to him because he was wrestling with these things himself. Eventually, he tried to take the detective story and make it more interesting psychologically, able to explore some of these things that he was very interested in.”
More than a decade and a half has passed since then. But when I learned that the Library of America planned to issue a selection of Ross Macdonald’s early Archer cases--to help celebrate this year’s centennial of the author’s birth (he came into the world in Los Gatos, California, on December 13, 1915)--and that Nolan had served as its editor, I knew I had to interview him again. I also wanted to ask Nolan, though, about his work on a second volume, Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, which Arcade Publishing will debut in July. Co-edited with Eudora Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs, it draws on an abundance of letters--more than 300 of them!--exchanged during the 1970s and early ’80s between Macdonald and Mississippi Pulitzer Prize winner Welty (The Optimist’s Daughter). “Though separated by background, geography, genre, and his marriage,” explains the back-jacket copy on my bound galley of this book, “the two authors shared their lives in witty, tender, and profoundly romantic letters, each drawing on the other for inspiration, comfort, and strength.”
And Nolan’s centennial-year offerings don’t stop there. He’s also awaiting this summer’s paperback release of an expanded version of The Archer Files, his 2007 collection of Macdonald’s previously unpublished Archer short stories and story fragments.
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