Tag Archives: Ross MacDonald

February roundup (still a bit belatedly)

So, here’s my February roundup as recently promised. February was an intense month at work and I read very little. On the other hand, I did enjoy what I read, so overall still a win I think.

The Ivory Grin, by Ross MacDonald

My return to Ross MacDonald was long overdue, and The Ivory Grin did not disappoint. Lew Archer is hired to find a missing girl, Lucy. Lucy is black and Archer’s client Una is white. Perhaps that’s why Una figures Archer will buy her story that Lucy was her maid and stole from her, and she’s only looking for her to avoid getting the police involved and the girl in trouble.

Soon Archer finds he’s not the only PI on Lucy’s trail, and when he finds her she’s evidently terrified. She’s right to be, because we’re hardly into the book at all when Archer finds Lucy with her throat slashed and in her effects a newspaper clipping about a missing socialite and a $5,000 reward.

MacDonald is on top form here. There’s a great character in the form of jaded police chief Lieutenant Brake, who’s seen it all before and is all too keen to arrest Lucy’s boyfriend figuring getting a jury to buy that one black person killed another won’t be too much of a hard sell. The difficulty is, Archer doesn’t believe the boyfriend is guilty, and Brake is smart enough to have his own doubts.

Ivory Grin has believable characters, a satisfyingly tangled plot, and definite pace. It’s an easy but excellent read. Jacqui reviewed it here, and I agree with pretty much every word of her review (particularly how great Brake is as a character, but then psychological depth is often where MacDonald excels).

Europe at Dawn, by Dave Hutchinson

This is the slightly unexpected fourth book in Dave Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy (now I guess a tetralogy – my previous reviews are here, here and here). It sees a welcome return of Rudi and Rupert, both much liked characters from earlier novels, and is satisfyingly complex while still revealing a few more of the setting’s secrets.

One reviewer on Amazon suggested re-reading the earlier books before reading this one, and to be honest I can see why. This is the culmination of three previous novels of future-Europe spycraft and most of the characters lie constantly to each other. I can see myself returning to the full cycle and reading them in again in reasonably quick order, as I’ve done with some of William Gibson’s books. I think they would repay the effort.

Ultimately, I didn’t actually think Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy needed anything more said, and to an extent I still think that, but Hutchinson clearly disagreed and since I thoroughly enjoyed Dawn I’m glad he did.

Nomads, by Dave Hutchinson

This came out while I was reading Europe at Dawn, and I needed a short SF read while very much heads down at work. I normally avoid reading two books by the same author in a row, but Nomads is a novella so I made an exception.

It’s a contemporary tale of a rural policeman who goes to investigate a cottage whose occupants complain that Cary Grant tried to break in the previous night. From there, things get very weird indeed, with time travel, refugees from the future, and a distinctly irked Home Office all thrown into the mix.

It’s fun, but I actually think it would be better if worked up into a full novel. If Hutchinson ever does that I’ll read it. If not, it’s a fun light snack between meatier books.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

What to say? It’s in Penguin Classics for a reason. It’s a masterpiece of expertly written gothic not-really-horror-but-still-pretty-damn-uncomfortable.

Merricat, Mary Catherine Blackwood, lives in a large house with her sister Constance and their frail Uncle Julian. Theirs is an old and a rich family, but blighted by scandal after all but these survivors were murdered in a notorious poisoning case some years before. Everyone believed Constance was guilty, but she wasn’t convicted so now the three of them live up in their secluded house, famous and feared.

Constance never leaves the house or its grounds now, and Uncle Julian can’t, so it’s Merricat who goes into the village for their shopping. She hears the chants of the local children, sees the barbed looks of the villagers. The thing is though, some of it is clearly real, but some of it might be entirely in Merricat’s head. She’s a marvellously unreliable narrator, and while many of the villagers clearly do hate and fear her I couldn’t help noticing that at times Merricat ascribed hostile motives to what seemed entirely ordinary acts on their part.

Merricat is superstitious, prone to fantasy, a dreamer but incredibly proud of her family and the Blackwood name. Then comes the bullishly pragmatic Cousin Charles, arrived to gain access to Merricat’s father’s money and soon dividing the household. He woos Constance, plans to have Uncle Julian put in a home, but in Merricat he’s found an enemy quite beyond his comprehension. It’s an insane fairy tale, with Merricat as the not-so-innocent babe and the unsympathetic Cousin Charles really very far out of his depth as the wicked interloper.

It is brilliant. It is funny. It is dark and twisted and gothic and surprising and, well, I could go on. Did I mention that it’s brilliant? A definite for my end of year list.

Jacqui wrote a very good review of this here. I also previously wrote about Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (also excellent) here. Hill House is remarkable. I think this may actually be better, hard as that may be to imagine.

And that was it for February! I did say it was a light month for reading. Still, that Jackson. Extraordinary.

 

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Filed under California, Hardboiled, Hutchinson, Dave, Jackson, Shirley, Macdonald, Ross, SF

He was the kind of puppy that would lick any hand that he was afraid to bite.

The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald

The Way Some People Die is where MacDonald stops imitating Chandler and Hammet and becomes his own writer. It’s the best of the Lew Archer series so far (it’s number three) and it’s as twisted a piece of classic hardboiled as you could wish to read.

The cover above is the one I have, from Black Lizard which is a Vintage Crime imprint. It’s a great cover, and physically a nice book, but I couldn’t resist sharing this older cover with you which I also love.

Lew Archer is hired by a concerned mother to find her wayward daughter., Galatea. The daughter is “crazy for men”, and now she’s disappeared with one leaving a good job as a nurse behind and with the only news being a postcard from San Francisco. It’s not much of a case, girls leave home all the time, but Archer agrees to make some easy inquiries. Before he leaves the mother’s house he takes a look at a photo of Galatea:

Pretty was hardly the word. With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets.

As you’d expect, it’s not as simple as a young woman who’s grown up and left home. Archer isn’t the only person looking for Galatea and the man she ran away with may be as much a danger to her as the people she’s hiding from. All this and somewhere out there is a package that people are prepared to kill to find (yup, there’s a MacGuffin).

What follows is a byzantine web of greed, double-cross and murder with Archer painstakingly working his way through to unravel just what it is that Galatea has got herself mixed up in. Finding Galatea isn’t Archer’s problem, it’s keeping her alive once he’s found her. All that and Galatea herself is no maiden waiting to be rescued, she’s as hardboiled as the rest of them.

On the level of a detective story The Way Some People Die works extremely well. Archer’s methods make sense (mostly he talks to people, follows up connections, occasionally circles around to talk to someone again once he has new info, it’s dogged detective work). The plot though complicated isn’t needlessly so, by the end you can see why things played out as they did.

All the elements of a great hardboiled novel are present and correct. To actually be a great hardboiled novel though you need more than stock ingredients and snappy dialogue. You need to do something that others aren’t doing, or at least aren’t doing as well. You need to reach beyond the genre.

What raises this novel beyond just being solid genre work is MacDonald’s eye for psychological depth, mood, and description. The Way Some People Die is suffused with a pervasive sense of weariness and sadness.At one point Archer observes of Galatea’s mother:

She lived in a world where people did this or that because they were good or evil. In my world people acted because they had to.

Later, Archer finds himself in a motel room with a pretty girl turned junkie who makes a living conning out-of-towners into thinking they’re going to get lucky:

It was an ugly little room, walled and ceiled with cheap green plaster that reminded me of public locker rooms, furnished with one bed, one chair, one peeling veneer dresser and a rug the moths had been at. It was a hutch for quick rabbit-matings, a cell where lonely men could beat themselves to sleep with a dark brown bottle. The girl looked too good for the room, though I knew she wasn’t.

That’s great description, and it’s not the only example I could have used (there’s a brilliant blow-by-blow account of a fixed fight at one point). Good as it is though it isn’t where MacDonald becomes his own writer. It’s his characterisation that does that.

Take the character of Dowser. Dowser is a racketeer, a mobster, a rich man who lives  in a gated house surrounded by bought women and hired men. So far so standard, but as Archer comes to know Dowser he sees a pathetic and empty man terrified of his own extinction.

Dowser is short, so short that even when he wears sandals by the pool he wears ones with two-inch heels. He can’t bear to be left alone, when his men leave the room he insists Archer stays until one of them returns. He can’t live without the validation of an audience, someone to talk to, to talk at. His real communication is in money, he can’t trust anyone he isn’t paying because he doesn’t know what they want.

It’s an extraordinary portrait. Dowser is humanised, but never ceases to be terrifying. He’s a monster, a hateful creation, and  MacDonald brings out how pitiful Dowser is without the reader ever forgetting quite how dangerous Dowser is too and so without ever actually making him pitiable.

Dowser isn’t the only great character here. MacDonald is forensic, but also compassionate and in contrast to Dowser is Keith Dalloway. Dalloway is a failed actor, a man too good looking for his own good and a drunk. MacDonald takes what with most writers would be a minor supporting character and gives him humanity. What in a film would be almost a walk-on part becomes something much more here, a study of missed chances and a reminder of human frailty.

The reason great crime,  more than any other genre, overlaps with literary fiction is that great crime doesn’t just ask what, it asks why too. MacDonald could have just made Dowser another mob boss from central casting, and if he had this would still have been a very solid novel. He could have made Dalling another good-looking act0r-wannabee, and the plot wouldn’t have suffered any.

MacDonald though asks why. He makes Dowser, Dalloway, Galatea, into real people who become more than just a mob boss, a patsy and a damsel in distress/femme fatale. The result is a book that’s no longer merely influenced by Hammet and Chandler but, that stands alongside them.

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Filed under California, Crime, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross, US fiction

… he moved like a man whose conscience was clear, or lacking.

The Drowning Pool, by Ross Macdonald

Raymond Chandler once said that Dashiell Hammett took crime out from the drawing room and back into the streets. Ross Macdonald in turn took crime out of the streets and into the hills and valleys of California.

I wrote about Ross Macdonald’s background and first Lew Archer novel here. It was a strong novel, but too derivative of Chandler and Hammett. Macdonald hadn’t found his own voice yet.

In The Drowning Pool I’d say he’s already much closer to finding that voice. I liked Moving Target enough to buy the sequel, but The Drowning Pool is better written and tighter and a distinct style is emerging which isn’t just a rerun of Macdonald’s inspirations.

There’s a line early in The Drowning Pool which though a little overwrought captures something key to the hardboiled crime genre: “Sex and money: the forked root of evil.”

Sex and money. There’s more to the hardboiled genre than that, but in terms of the crimes the genre explores those are the only two motives that matter. That’s Hammett’s legacy. The plot may be tangled, but what drives events is very simple indeed.

The Drowning Pool opens with Lew Archer being hired by a beautiful woman (naturally) who has received a poison pen letter alleging infidelity. Archer takes the case, and investigating the woman’s family finds a husband who may prefer other men, a mother-in-law who controls the family purse strings and keeps that husband emasculated and dependent on her, a daughter perhaps unhealthily fond of her father and family friends not all of whom seem all that friendly.

Archer also learns that the whole family are sitting on a fortune in oil. A fortune nobody can get to as long as the mother-in-law (who owns the land) refuses to sell up. When she is found floating face down in the family pool the question isn’t who benefits from her death, it’s who doesn’t.

I’m not going to talk further about the plot. It’s well crafted and satisfying and the various twists and turns are convincing. The plot is what makes this an easy read, it’s what keeps the pages turning, it’s not though what makes it worth reading.

What makes it worth reading is the sense of place, more particularly the sense of California. I said in my writeup of The Moving Target that I was impressed by how vividly Macdonald brought California to life. That’s if anything even more true in this novel. Here Archer goes for a swim in the sea:

I turned on my back and floated, looking up at the sky, nothing around me but cool clear Pacific, nothing in my eyes but long blue space. It was as close as I ever got to cleanliness and freedom, as far as I ever got from all the people. They had jerrybuilt the beaches from San Diego to the Golden Gate, bulldozed super-highways through the mountains, cut down a thousand years of redwood growth, and built an urban wilderness in the desert. They couldn’t touch the ocean. They poured their sewage into it, but it couldn’t be tainted.

And here, later on that same page, Archer reflects on the oil town that’s sprung up not all that far from that beach:

The oil wells from which the sulphur gas rose crowded the slopes on both sides of the town. I could see them from the highway as I drove in: the latticed triangles of the derricks where trees had grown, the oil-pumps nodding and clanking where cattle had grazed. Since ‘thirty-nine or ‘forty, when I had seen it last, the town had grown enormously, like a tumor. It had thrust out shoots in all directions: blocks of match-box houses in raw new housing developments and the real estate shacks to go with them, a half-mile gauntlet of one-story buildings along the highway: veterinarians, chiropractors, beauty shops, marketerias, restaurants, bars, liquor stores, There was a new four-story hotel, a white frame gospel tabernacle, a bowling alley wide enough to house a B-36. The main street had been transformed by glass brick, plastic, neon. A quiet town in a sunny valley had hit the jackpot hard, and didn’t know what to do with itself at all.

That’s a long quote above, but I think it’s a great one. The town’s expanding, sprawling, it’s capitalism made physical in steel and glass. It’s America changing as it always has changed, with the orange groves and the farms making way for yet another gold rush. It’s money, one half of the forked root of evil, and it’s irresistible.

As so often in the hardboiled genre, there’s a sense of corruption under a glittering surface. California is beautiful, the sea and the sky are both blue, but you don’t need to dig very deep or go very far before you find something much darker. Like the pool itself the surface of California is inviting, but it’s far from the whole story.

The underwater lights of the pool were on, so that the water was a pale emerald depth with a luminous and restless surface filming it.

And with that, there’s not a lot more to say. Macdonald tries less hard here than in the first novel with the zingy one-liners. He still manages a nice line in short sentence descriptions (there’s a couple of examples below) but he’s not trying so hard to mimic Chandler’s polish and the snap of Marlowe’s comebacks. It makes for a less forced style and plays better to Macdonald’s own strengths. Here’s those examples:

There were dark crumbs on the oilcloth-covered table beside the burner, and some of them were moving.

… my hood was still hot enough to fry the insects that splattered it.

I could easily have found more.

In the end, crime fiction is moral fiction. The people Archer encounters are motivated by sex and money, that’s why their actions lead to misery and death. Archer himself though is something quite different. The key difference for me between hardboiled and noir is in the morality of the protagonist. In noir, the protagonist is one more person driven by sex or money or both. In hardboiled, everyone else may be like that, but the detective isn’t that smart. He’s motivated by something else, something more noble, something which frankly the world he’s in has no use for. The hardboiled detective is motivated by the desire for truth, whatever the price, even if the price is paid by him. He’s a paladin, a paragon of virtue in a virtueless world. I’ll leave Archer the final word:

“I don’t know what justice is,” I said. “Truth interests me, though. Not general truth if there is any, but the truth of particular things. Who did what when why. Especially why. …”

The Drowning Pool. That’s the Vintage Black Lizard press imprint, a series I’m very fond of as the covers are generally good, the layout clear and the paper and bindings of good quality.

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Filed under California, Crime, Hardboiled, Macdonald, Ross, US fiction