Thursday, September 01, 2011

Are you a detective?

Macdonald constructed his plots rather than improvise them, thereby merging his novelist’s concern for his themes with the reader’s desire for a good (and fairly clued) mystery. The plot was everything with Macdonald. Beginning with The Galton Case (1959) (…) all Macdonald’s novels have the same plot. A murder in the past traumatizes a child and poisons the present, threatening a relationship and causing more murders. The themes of child’s loss of parent and parent’s loss of child (Macdonald experienced both) are rendered poignantly again and again.
—William DeAndrea, Encyclopedia Mysteriosa

Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald
When I moved, I started to attend Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School. This is the same high school that Margaret Millar and her husband Kenneth Millar (better known under his pseudonym Ross Macdonald) attended. For what it’s worth, I despised the school, which is full to the brim of bad memories for me. I don’t recall a single enjoyable day I had between those walls, and returning for a single evening to obtain a diploma was one the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I left five minutes after the general reunion got underway.

Perhaps it’s one of the reasons I’ve been interested with the work of Ross Macdonald, a prolific writer of hardboiled mysteries starring private eye Lew Archer. I have no idea how he and his wife enjoyed the high school experience, but I walked through the same corridors as they did for a few years. What really surprises me is how long it’s taken me to read something by Macdonald: I decided to acquaint myself with his work through The Galton Case, which he apparently considered the book in which he broke off from the influence of Raymond Chandler and started writing his own way.

His own way of writing things is apparently really damn good. The Galton Case is unquestionably my favourite hardboiled mystery to date, although that’s not saying much, considering how little I’ve read. The Galton Case contains a fairly clued mystery told in the hardboiled manner, about the search for a missing man. Anthony Galton disappeared off the face of the earth more than 20 years ago, which either means he’s dead or he doesn’t want to be found. Lew Archer is hired by the Galton family to locate Anthony, a task that seems impossible. Suddenly, a murder occurs, and working on a hunch and with Lady Luck giving him a break, Lew Archer is on the trail of a possible heir to the Galton fortune.

Where to start? Although part of the mystery is rather weak, the other part is hands-down brilliant, with a marvellous ending I only saw coming at the moment Archer did. The less said about that, the better: the reader discover this plot for his or her own self, and savour every moment of it. Archer himself is a stunning creation. He’s a traditional hardboiled detective, but he doesn’t make being an intolerable jackass his life’s ultimate goal, and he’s a very likeable, decent sort.

This is the big difference I saw between Macdonald and the work of Raymond Chandler, who has yet to make it into my good books. In Chandler’s world, everyone is a snarler, being as unpleasant and nasty as possible to each other. There’s more humanity to Macdonald’s world: people may have secrets they are trying to keep buried, but they do show humanity, compassion, and real emotions. For instance, Anthony Galton and his mother were at loggerheads because of his choice of wife, but more than 20 years after the fact, all his mother wants is to forgive her son and see him return home. The mother-son relationship is lovingly handled and makes for one of the book’s best features.

I have struggled for over three hours to write a passable review of this book, and it seems that I am doomed to failure. Words of mine seem to do no justice whatsoever to this fine novel. I think I’d be willing to step out and call it a masterpiece. The characters are interesting, multi-dimensional creations that seem like real people. The mystery is a good one. The plot is fast-paced, breathless, and exciting. And instead of copying the tired Chandler formula, Ross Macdonald comes up with something of his own. The book is a stunning success, and that’s what makes it so difficult to review. I’d love to talk about all the levels it excels on, but with a novel of such calibre, I’d rather reveal as little as possible and hope other readers enjoy the book as much as I did.

I have seriously neglected hardboiled authors on this blog! I recently devoted a series of reviews to various Crime Kings, and I hope this review will be the start of a similar series devoted to hardboiled mysteries. As a sort of introduction, I’d like to share an interesting quote in William DeAndrea’s Encyclopedia Mysteriosa. Max Allan Collins writes an article on “The Hard-Boiled Detective”, and in it, the following appears:

“What separates the American hard-boiled detective-crime novel from the British (and American) drawing room mystery is not, as some would have it, that the former is more realistic than the latter. The traditional mystery has a cooler head—is more intellectual, generally, with a more detached view of its puzzle. The hard-boiled mystery deals more overtly with the real concerns of life, but not in a particularly more realistic fashion.”

Though Collins makes an interesting point, it’s a rather flawed way of putting it. The (tiresome) generalization is that “traditional” crime fiction is not concerned with anything but the intellectual side of things. To that, I need point no further than Agatha Christie’s masterpiece Five Little Pigs. It is an excellent mystery that deals with emotions: that of five people who were thrown into a notorious murder, one that would change their lives forever; that of a young couple, whose happiness is tainted by the shadow of the past; that of an orphan seeking truth, wanting to know who she is and who her mother was… And this is Agatha Christie, who is supposed to be the leading practitioner of the “traditional” and supposedly emotionless mystery!

But Collins does make an interesting (and, I think, valid) point: no matter what fans of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, & Co. will tell you, hardboiled fiction is not necessarily more inherently realistic than traditional detective fiction. Raymond Chandler is just as stylized as John Dickson Carr, but the reasons I prefer Carr are simple: Chandler’s plots are improvised, not constructed, and everyone in Chandler-verse is an unpleasant ratbag whose sole goal in life is to make Phillip Marlowe’s life miserable.

Despite my dislike of Chandler’s work, I assure you these feelings are not transferred to the entire hardboiled school. In fact, I rather like the noir film genre which takes its conventions and runs with them. The upcoming series of reviews is intended to give hardboiled detective fiction a chance to have its say, and hopefully for me to discover the merits of hardboiled mysteries, which I have unfairly ignored until now.


  1. I actually thought this book was a step down from the first one I read, The Far Side of the Dollar, which I loved from start to finish – and The Chill put me off MacDonald all together. This was during period when I began sampling hardboiled writers and came to the same conclusion as you: Chandler, Hammett and MacDonald didn't write stories that were any more realistic than the yarns penned by Carr, Innes and Boucher.

    Your review is just fine as not every story will allow you to divulge too much of the plot without spoiling the game. The best you can do in such cases is present the reader with an appetizer, and it's up to them to decide if they want to move on to the main course.

    It's still kinda awesome you went to the same school as a familiar mystery writer! I guess you were bothered by the familiar schoolyard ruffians, which could've easily been solved by going to school wearing a fedora, rain coat and slugged one of them in the jaw, hit a coke bottle over the head of a second one and poke the remains of the jagged soda container in the stomach of the third – observing that his cronies had learned their lessons for today but has he? Followed up by slowly walking off... into the hallway to the first class of the day.

  2. You know, many comments I've received say that "The Chill" is Macdonald's masterpiece. Why did it put you off Macdonald?

    Actually, it wasn't so much the schoolyard ruffians that bothered me. True, there were three jackasses who took sadistic pleasure in tormenting me for a while, but what I particularly hated about the school was the false front it presented of being a loving and accepting community, when it was anything but... This is the same school that found it necessary to announce over the P.A. system that it was unacceptable to walk to the hospital during lunch and point and laugh at those coming in and out of the cancer ward.

    Ironic, isn't it, that with experiences like that, I don't find myself sympathising with Chandler's worldview?

  3. What spoils Lew Archer for me is that he is such a bleeding-heart liberal that a)he is totally unbelievable as a private detective, and b) all his reactions are predictable as knee-jerk reflexes, and his whole worldview, with its profound melancholic sadness at the human folly, a little bit too Christ-like not to read like a parody of the genre. The liberal viewpoint always finds the same expression, through a plot where the villainous rich ruin the lives of their dissatisfied children (and sometimes the lives of the innocently bystanding deserving poor). This gets horribly repetitive after a few books. I do admit that some of the plots are masterly (and the twist in The Chill is a knockout), but the sameness of the ingredients somehow turns the books for me into one long wail over the human condition. Most of his plots get mixed together in memory, so I never remember which of his books I've read and which not, and how they were different from one another.

  4. Read The Galton Case last year and did like it a lot esp that twist in the end which was difficult to guess. However, I don't agree with your comments on Chandler who might have some very unpleasant people populating his books but more than makes it up by creating Philip Marlowe.

  5. Hi Patrick, glad to hear you liked your first Macdonald experience so much. to me he is a true master of the form and THE GALTON CASE is, chronologically, probably the right place to start reading his most distinctive work. It's the only one of his books I've blogged about dso far for that very reason, but definitely want to do other, especially THE CHILL and BLACK MONEY, which are probably my absolutely favourites of his post-GALTON books and I cannot imagine for a nano second why TomCat reacted so badly THE CHILL. It's a shame that you dislike Chandler so intensely because, to my way of thinking, is a truly great writer, beyond his abilities to construct (or not) mystery plots. But as always you put your point of view across so compellingly that I start questioning my own beliefs!