Saturday, August 01, 2009

A Passion for Mercy: Ross MacDonald

Tobias Jones offers an assement of crime writer Ross MacDonald, arguing that MacDonald eventually outstripped those writers like Hammett and Chandler he aspired to imitate, with the creation of the fictional detective Lew Archer:

"Over a series spanning 18 novels, Archer became something paradoxical: a memorable character about whom the reader knows next to nothing, the man with the punchy one-liners who is actually a good listener. Macdonald once wrote of his famous creation that he was "so narrow that when he turns sideways he almost disappears". The thinness was deliberate because Macdonald wanted his detective to be like a therapist, a man whose actions "are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people's lives and discovering their significance. He is ... a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge."

Jones, like other writers who have looked at MacDonald, picks up on the psychological aspects of MacDonald's books, but like them he misses one of the things that makes MacDonald's work stand out above other writers - the way in which he locates the ultimate cause of individual and family breakdown in sociological causes - particularly war and the pursuit of power and wealth. Although these factors are always in the background it provides a missing element that makes so many other psychological thrillers lacking by comparison. One other aspect of MacDonald's work that I find exciting is the frequent backdrop of environmental disaster, threatening communities and individuals - forest fires, oil spills - which heighten the tension and provide cotnemporary relevance.

Read the whole feature in The Guardian.