You’re the neon type, aren’t you?

The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald

It’s a curious thing how writers come in and out of fashion. A writer can be a great success in their lifetime, critically acclaimed, popular perhaps too, yet after a few years be largely forgotten. Others languish in obscurity, are even ridiculed, but years later come to be seen as masters in their field. There’s little pattern to it that I see, literary immortality is a crapshoot.

Ross Macdonald hasn’t fared so well at the tables the last few decades. In his day, Macdonald was a major writer of hardboiled fiction, he was referred to as belonging to the holy trinity of crime, along with Chandler and Hammett. Now, he’s little known, undeservedly so because while I don’t (so far anyway) put him next to Chandler and Hammett in terms of ability he’s an enjoyable read with a fine line in snappy dialogue and sense of place.

I heard about Ross Macdonald through a Tobias Jones article in the Guardian, which can be read here. Jones argues that Macdonald surpasses the other hardboiled greats, but that this took time with the early novels consciously imitating his predecessors. That’s interesting, and in a way reassuring, because I started with Macdonald’s first and while I enjoyed it I couldn’t help but notice quite how derivative of Chandler in particular it is.

Macdonald’s protagonist is private detective Lew Archer, the name a reference to Miles Archer – Sam Spade’s partner in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Archer operates out of LA, mostly doing divorce work, but in this first of fourteen novels he is hired by a Mrs. Sampson to find her husband who has failed to return from a trip. The Sampsons, naturally, are rich, and Mrs. Sampson is determined to outlive her husband and inherit his wealth. She’s concerned that he might be with another woman, which could mean she could get squeezed out of the inheritance, it soon becomes apparent though that the truth is more likely to involve kidnap.

As you’d expect, matters soon complicate. Sampson’s daughter, Miranda, is young and beautiful and in love with Sampson’s private pilot, handsome young Alan Taggert, but Taggert doesn’t love her back. Who is in love with her is Albert Graves, a lawyer and old friend of Archer’s, but to Miranda an old man of 40. Mixed in too are a has-been film star, a California guru operating a mountaintop temple, a piano bar singer with a background in jazz and drug-induced psychiatric problems, a smooth and silver haired hood and many more. It’s not original, these are all pretty much stock characters for the genre, but it’s well written and moves along speedily.

Normally, I like to quote passages from works, so as to give a feel for the writing. Here though, the one-liner tends to be king. Hardboiled fiction loves snappy dialogue, Chandler can maintain it for whole passages of glittering beauty, Macdonald isn’t that good (yet anyway), but he still has his moments. I thought this line, from the first page, quite marvellous:

The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money.

I also liked “unripe oranges like dark-green golf balls”, and generally was impressed by how vividly California was itself brought to life, a character in the drama. Archer goes from rich and secluded estates, to downtown dives, to grimy shacks, and throughout it all Macdonald has a nice eye for the California landscape.

From the summit of the pass we could see the valley filled with sunlight like a bowl brimming with yellow butter, and the mountains clear and sharp on the other side.

There’s a lot of nice little character descriptions too, a telephone operator who “was a frozen virgin who dreamed about men at night and hated them in the daytime.” “Her tone clicked like pennies; her eyes were small and hard and shiny like dimes.” A thug is described as follows “I didn’t like the way he moved toward me. His left shoulder was forward and his chin in, as if every hour of his day was divided into twenty three-minute rounds.” That’s very easy to picture, and tells you all you need to know of the thug in two sentences.

The Moving Target is an easily read book, which of course it should be. It was hampered for me by my reading it during a week when I’ve had a cold nasty enough to kill my concentration (though not so bad as to keep me from work), which meant it took days to read what should have taken an evening, even with that though I found my interest sustained and the pacing held up well. As it goes on, it gets nastier, as Archer gets further into the twisted lives of Sampson and his associates, a world of jaded sex, drugs, new age beliefs (not that they called it that then, but it’s what they are) and of course money.

The most unusual element is a focus on psychology, something I understand gets much more pronounced later in the series. The piano bar singer sings a song about her psychiatric issues with “decadent intelligence”, Archer early on asks if there’s “a psychological explanation for my being here”, Archer’s a form of secular priest, a therapist even, bringing the truth to light and encouraging confession (which may be good for the soul, but it’s lousy for your chances of avoiding the needle). Of course, hardboiled detectives always have that element of clergy to them, that feeling of being agents of a higher justice in a world that feels no need for it, what’s unusual here is the way the references tend to the psychological, the psychiatric even. So far it’s an interesting twist, I’ll see in due course if it gets too much in later volumes.

As I noted above, this is Macdonald’s first, and though at times there are some lovely bits of dialogue (“I wouldn’t trust him with a burnt-out match.” is another), at others he slightly overdoes it. The line between inspiration and pastiche can be a thin one, and once or twice Macdonald crosses it. Here, I thought the tires element just a metaphor too far:

“You want to go there?”
“Why not?” I said. “The night is young.” I was lying. The night was old and chilly, with a slow heartbeat. The tires whined like starved cats on the fog-sprinkled black-top. The neon along the strip glared with insomnia.

That’s just too hardboiled. I couldn’t take it entirely seriously, it was too studiedly Chandler-esque, too plainly an imitation. Macdonald also has a habit of describing all the female characters’ breasts, which have nipples that look at Archer like eyes or point out at him (going on the films I suspect 1940 bras were a bit pointy actually) or generally tend to be a bit noticeable – giving me at least the slightly unfortunate impression that Archer was one of those men who speak to women’s chests rather than their faces.

Plotwise, this goes as you’d expect, Archer gets beaten up and sapped a few times (“His fist struck the nape of my neck. Pain whistled through my body like splintered glass, and the night fell on me solidly again.”), has guns held on him more than once, people get killed and the whole thing turns out more complex than it looks. This isn’t a novel that pushes the boundaries of its genre, it’s rather a novel by an author drawing heavily on what went before and writing firmly within the genre his predecessors created. It’s enjoyable, but it’s a novel for genre fans, not so much for those looking to take a dip outside their usual literary waters, for whom I’d recommend going back to Chandler or Hammett just like Macdonald himself did.

Still, for all that I am a genre fan, so I’ve ordered the next. For me, the jury’s out whether the psychological elements coming more to the fore will make it better or worse, it’s good Macdonald later finds his own voice but I may not of course like that voice. Still, there’s only one way to find out and this was good enough to make it worth sticking with Macdonald a bit longer while he finds his feet.

The Moving Target. I read this in the Black Lizard edition, a range published by Vintage. Black Lizard tend unfortunately only to be available in the US, I like them as they’re physically light with good paper and printing making them an easy and pleasurable read. Hopefully we’ll see more of them in the UK going forward, as there’s a bit of a paucity of good imprints for works of this kind right now in the UK (which is, in part, why I’m so fond of Serpent’ Tail).

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12 Comments

Filed under California, Crime Fiction, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross, US Literature

12 responses to “You’re the neon type, aren’t you?

  1. I have never read anything from this genre, and you were really selling it, until the part about women’s breasts. That, repetitively, could get extremely irritating, rather quickly. Although I suppose it is justified in pastiche.

    Otherwise, what wonderful quotes. Incisive brevity. Maybe because I haven’t read the genre, I rather liked the tires whining like starved cats…

  2. That’s pretty much why I mentioned that bit, after a while it did start to jar with me rather. The first couple of times it feels there’s a point about the character being made, but after it happens for almost all the female characters…

    That said, it’s not like it’s every other page, it just comes up a few times, but then repressed sexuality is a big driver in these novels which is I think part of why he does it. I just think in this novel, he overdoes it slightly. Ideally, I shouldn’t have noticed he was doing it, I should really have just got the feeling of barely suppressed desire that I think he meant to imply with the descriptions, but that didn’t quite work out.

    If I were going to recommend any single book from this genre incidentally, it would be The Big Sleep, which is tremendous. This is very imitative of Chandler, though it does have some lovely writing as I’m glad I was able to show. That said, it’s quite atypical but Hammett’s The Thin Man is huge fun.

    The tires bit is interesting, I wasn’t sure that I was right to dislike it, it’s a fine divide sometimes between a great line and a jarring one, I don’t know I necessarily called it right.

  3. I will bear The Big Sleep in mind. I like to read expansively. Thanks, Max.

  4. Trevor wrote his thoughts on The Big Sleep here: http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2009/07/30/raymond-chandlers-the-big-sleep/

    which is worth having a look at (as Trevor always is).

  5. Max –

    What a well timed piece. Not simmply because I’m currently excavating all I can on Los Angeles culture, but because in an eerie conicidence, you have selected a writer that I had not heard of prior to last Tuesday when James Ellroy discussed him in his talk at the South Bank. Clearly, the God’s are indicating I investigate further! Ellroy was asked by an audience member if either Ross Macdonald or Donald E. Westlake had influenced him much and what he thought of their writing. He said he’d read one Macdonald novel in the mid 70’s, but hadn’t liked it so read no more, but he had read all the Westlake novels he wrote as Richard Stark, specifically the Walker novels. Thankfully, your summation above has encouraged me to disregard Ellroy’s disinterest and add Macdnald to my L.A enquiries.

    Elsewhere, Ellroy was asked about David Peace, whom he said he hadn’t read but had met for a forthcoming Guardian feature. Peace strikes me as a classic example of your point about writers coming in and out of fashion. If one considers a 2008 Times ‘Best Crime Writers’ list Peace fails to make it (!), presumably as the list just predated television’s adoption of his Red Riding Trilogy, even though the literary quartet on which it was based first appeared almost a decade ago. This rasises obvious thoughts about both the way marketing campaigns can obscure a sense of a writer’s true value – is Peace overrated Post the tv-tie-in hype machine, or was he criminally underrated for well over a decade by a wider audience? Indeed, the list itself cannot be entirely written off as lazy hack work as, in yet another conincidence James Ellroy makes number 20, placed one step behind no less than…..Ross Macdonald. Spooky!

    List here: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/global/article3773630.ece

  6. Richard: If your investigation of Los Angeles culture extends beyond the crime genre, don’t overlook John Fante’s four-volume Saga of Arturo Bandini (it doesn’t start in LA but most of it is set there — that process of migration to LA is an important part of the culture). Fante is another author who qualifies in the “in and out of fashion” sweepstakes. Currently, I would say interest is on the growing side — certainly the googled hits to my review of the Saga on my site indicate that a significant number of people are checking him out.

  7. Richard,

    I’ve not read the Walker novels, but I know of them and it doesn’t surprise me Ellroy’s a fan. Oddly enough, I much prefer Ellroy’s earlier work, pre American Tabloid, I think he’s become a bit of a caricature of himself of late. Bloated, and employing his stylistic techniques in increasingly obvious fashion. That said, I do like the early stuff.

    As you may have noticed, I’ve written up a Donald Westlake here (which is huge fun, and not at all serious), and the first of Peace’s Red Riding sequence – which owes a very obvious stylistic debt to Ellroy. Peace is an extraordinary writer, in a sense way over the top, but with real power I think. There’s a fury to his work, though I think it’s always important to remember that they’re novels and not history, something which I think is easy to forget given his use of real people and situations.

    Here’s a link about Westlake that Kerry provided and that is interesting: http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2009/summer/mcnally-stark-world/

    I do think Peace was underrated, just as he may now be overrated, but I’ve only read his first which may well not be his strongest (it isn’t for most writers).

    Kevin’s Fante recommendation is worth following. I wrote up the first Bandini novel here, and link there to Kevin’s writeup of all of them. It’s well written stuff. Pynchon too on the California front has some very interesting things to say, I think The Crying of Lot 49 interested me most of all the books I’ve mentioned in this post.

  8. Howard Curtis

    Ross Macdonald is a great writer whom I once read a lot by, and whose time will come again, I’m sure. He is, I think, the only one of the many writers of private-eye novels who flourished in the wake of Chandler who did something essentially new with the genre and took it far beyond his model. His later work is very different from Chandler. I’ve always thought of Macdonald as the Ibsen of the private-eye story, as most of his later novels have plots which revolve around long-buried secrets within families and the malign influence that the past has over the present. I think his work reached a peak of excellence in the late 1960s with novels like “The Instant Enemy”, “The Goodbye Look” and “The Underground Man” – all well worth seeking out.

  9. I’ve certainly not lost my interest in him Howard, though I am still working sequentially. I’ve bought The Drowning Pool, and though I appreciate it’s the later works he’s best regarded for I’d like to work through them sequentially and watch his road to those more successful works.

    This is still an enjoyable read, it’s just not great yet, but I’m heartened to hear he gets there once he better finds his own voice (at this early stage the Chandler imprint is still very clear).

    I’ll definitely look forward to the three you name though, thanks for the recommendations.

  10. Max

    Apologies for the sluggish response but I’ve not been about much of late to do the good things in life, namely contemplate and read. Many thanks for the suggestions above. I shall certaily probe further.

    > Oddly enough, I much prefer Ellroy’s earlier work, pre American Tabloid, I think he’s become a bit of a caricature of himself of late. Bloated, and employing his stylistic techniques in increasingly obvious fashion. That said, I do like the early stuff.

    To be honenst I don’t think this is that odd. Ellroy’s prose certainly teeters on charicature now. I loved ‘American Tabloid’, but with ‘Cold 6,000′ I found myself marvelling at his stamina more than his narration. Where as a supposedly lesser novel like ‘Crime Wave’ haunts me to this day. As for ‘My Dark Places’, it’s power is extraordinary.

    Have you ever seen James Ellroy’s ‘Feast Of Death’. If not, hunt it out because it’s one of the most incredible literary documentaries ever made. Everythng to love and hate about Ellroy is contained within.

    RK

  11. Hi Richard,

    I’ve not been about myself much the past few days. I agree with your comments on Ellroy, I haven’t seen the documentary though so will definitely look that out. Thanks for the tip.

  12. In response to Richard Kovitch

    The “gods”, in the form of Tobias Jones at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival and P D James in her recent book “Talking about Detective Fiction” are speaking to me also.

    I’ve chosen to start my acquaintance with MacDonald’s “The Doomsters” from 1958. It’s a good vintage – one it shares with me! I hope it’s as good as the other late-50’s novels recommended.

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