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Revisiting A Suburbia-Gone-Sour In Ross Macdonald's Crime Fiction

Ross Macdonald had a smart answer to the tedious question of why he devoted his considerable talents to writing "mere" detective stories: Macdonald said that the detective story was "a kind of welder's mask enabling writers to handle dangerously hot material." Like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (the great hard-boiled masters whom he revered), Macdonald set out to excavate the dark depths of American life, but to find his own "dangerously hot material" Macdonald descended into uncharted territory. His hard-boiled predecessors had walked the mean streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles; Macdonald moved to the suburbs — a California landscape of mortgaged dreams that already seems exhausted in the four mystery novels of the 1950s reprinted in this Library of America collection. All those images of suburbia-gone-sour that distinguish the work of a John Cheever, Richard Ford, Tom Perrotta, or even the early seasons of Mad Men owe something to Macdonald's penetrating vision.

It took Macdonald a while to find his voice, as he explains in a couple of moody autobiographical essays that appear at the end of this collection. His hard-knock life story reads like something out of a James M. Cain Depression-era noir. Macdonald was born in California in 1915, but grew up in Canada. His father abandoned the family when Macdonald was 4 and he and his mother bounced from relatives' homes to rooming houses.

Like so many lonely kids before and after him, Macdonald escaped into reading, falling in love with the novels of Dickens and then, fatally, Hammett. Thanks to a life insurance policy pay-out upon the timely death of that absentee father, Macdonald went to college and, then, graduate school in English — the first of our hard-boiled masters to earn a Ph.D. If you look closely, you can spot the influence of the Romantic poets in Macdonald's quick and always surprising imagery. Take this phrase from his 1959 masterpiece, The Galton Case, where he characterizes a tough-but-naive dame as possessing an "asphalt innocence."

For a long time Macdonald's wife, Margaret Millar, was the more successful mystery writer; Macdonald's own early novels sounded too much like Chandler knock-offs. But when he entered psychotherapy in 1956, Macdonald — and his detective hero Lew Archer — came into their own. You can hear the transformation in the opening pages of Macdonald's breakthrough 1958 novel, The Doomsters. A troubled young man bangs at Lew Archer's door in the wee hours of the morning. Archer tells us: "A pre-breakfast client was the last thing I needed that morning. But it was one of those times when you have to decide between your own convenience and the unknown quantity of another man's trouble."

Sam Spade would have rolled over in bed and ignored the knock; Philip Marlowe would have been out walking the LA 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."

The four 1950s novels gathered in this Library of America volume offer readers the thrill of watching a writer evolve. I could urge you to read Macdonald because other great writers — from Eudora Welty to George Pelecanos — have paid him homage. I could make a sociological argument about how these novels offer a panoramic tour of 1950s California — a landscape of cars and Beat poetry joints here dismissively referred to as "culture caves." But, mostly you should read Macdonald for the reason you read any great writer — for the thrill of the language and vision. I leave you with this passage from The Galton Case where Archer describes his visit to a rich old woman who implores him to find her long-lost grandson.

"[Mrs. Galton] spoke like a little girl betrayed by time and loss, by fading hair and wrinkles and the fear of death. ... She was chanting in a ritual of hope [about being reunited with her grandson]. If she said it often enough, it would come true.

"I'm hungry," she said. "I want my lunch. ..."

That meditation on human yearning and mortality ends with the intrusion of something baser. Macdonald's encompassing awareness distinguishes his writing: He gives us the good, the bad and the ugly — all the stuff that makes us human beings tick.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.