The Stacks: How America Fell for the Private Eye
Ed here: Long, incisive and eloquent. Run it off and read it at your leisure.
This is reprinted from The Daily Beast
Ross Macdonald wrote his share of classic American detective stories. Here he takes a busman’s holiday and explores the origins of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and his own Lew Archer.
Ross Macdonald belongs on the Mount Rushmore of American mystery writers, alongside Edgar Allen Poe, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. He was also a connoisseur of the detective story, as he displays in this terrific 1965 Show magazine essay, “The Writer as Detective Hero,” one of a handful of nonfiction pieces that appear in a new Library of America anthology, Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan. If you are a fan of mysteries, this collection is a must, another beautiful and meticulous Library of America volume. Reprinted here with permission, this is a master given by a peerless practitioner.
A producer who last year was toying with the idea of making a television series featuring my private detective Lew Archer asked me over lunch at Perino’s if Archer was based on any actual person. “Yes,” I said. “Myself.” He gave me a semi-pitying Hollywood look. I tried to explain that while I had known some excellent detectives and watched them work, Archer was created from the inside out. I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me.
The conversation went downhill from there, as if I had made a damaging admission. But I believe most detective-story writers would give the same answer. A close paternal or fraternal relationship between writer and detective is a marked peculiarity of the form. Throughout its history, from Poe to Chandler and beyond, the detective hero has represented his creator and carried his values into action in society.
Poe, who invented the modern detective story, and his detective Dupin, are good examples. Poe’s was a first-rate but guilt-haunted mind painfully at odds with the realities of pre-Civil-War America. Dupin is a declassed aristocrat, as Poe’s heroes tend to be, an obvious equivalent for the artist-intellectual who has lost his place in society and his foothold in tradition. Dupin has no social life, only one friend. He is set apart from other people by his superiority of mind.
In his creation of Dupin, Poe was surely compensating for his failure to become what his extraordinary mental powers seemed to fit him for. He had dreamed of an intellectual hierarchy governing the cultural life of the nation, himself at its head. Dupin’s outwitting of an unscrupulous politician in “The Purloined Letter,” his “solution” of an actual New York case in “Marie Roget,” his repeated trumping of the cards held by the Prefect of Police, are Poe’s vicarious demonstrations of superiority to an indifferent society and its officials.
Of course Poe’s detective stories gave the writer, and give the reader, something deeper than such obvious satisfactions. He devised them as a means of exorcising or controlling guilt and horror. The late William Carlos Williams, in a profound essay, related Poe’s sense of guilt and horror to the terrible awareness of a hyper-conscious man standing naked and shivering on a new continent. The guilt was doubled by Poe’s anguished insight into the unconscious mind. It had to be controlled by some rational pattern, and the detective story, “the tale of ratiocination,” provided such a pattern.
The tale of the bloody murders in the Rue Morgue, Poe’s first detective story (1841), is a very hymn to analytic reason intended, as Poe wrote later, “to depict some very remarkable features in the mental character of my friend, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin.” Dupin clearly represents the reason, which was Poe’s mainstay against the nightmare forces of the mind. These latter are acted out by the murderous ape: “Gnashing its teeth, and flashing fire from its eyes, it flew upon the body of the girl and embedded its fearful talons in her throat, retaining its grasp until she expired.”Dupin’s reason masters the ape and explains the inexplicable—the wrecked apartment behind the locked door, the corpse of a young woman thrust up the chimney—but not without leaving a residue of horror. The nightmare can’t quite be explained away, and persists in the teeth of reason. An unstable balance between reason and more primitive human qualities is characteristic of the detective story. For both writer and reader it is an imaginative arena where such conflicts can be worked out safely, under artistic controls
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