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).