Monday, August 03, 2009

The Third Man

There was a very nice tribute in Saturday’s Guardian to 20th-century American novelist Ross Macdonald and his best-known fictional creation, Los Angeles detective Lew Archer. Author Tobias Jones (The Salati Case) wrote, in part:
Over a series spanning 18 novels private eye 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.” Macdonald was always insistent that Archer wasn’t the centre of the story. “The detective,” he once advised an aspiring writer, “isn’t your main character, and neither is your villain. The main character is the corpse. The detective’s job is to seek justice for the corpse. It’s the corpse’s story, first and foremost.” On another occasion, he wrote that it was the “other people”--those whose problems Archer is investigating--“that are for me the main thing”.

It’s because of Macdonald’s depth that one critic wrote of him that he didn’t merely write about crime; he wrote about sin. It would be a good line if it weren’t slightly misleading. It makes Macdonald sound Calvinistic, as if he were wagging a finger at wrongdoers, when he often does the opposite. There are many occasions in his novels, most notably in The Doomsters, when Archer sits and listens to a confession and the reader is moved to sympathy for the murderer. Macdonald doesn’t present a paper-thin baddie but a fragile human being who is reciprocating the injustices they’ve suffered. And most of the characters in his books have suffered: they’re abandoned by partners or parents, they’re forced to confront unexpected family secrets, they’re often short of love or money, normally both. As the author himself said: “The Archer novels are about various kinds of brokenness.”
Do yourself a favor. Read the whole essay here.

(Hat tip to Tom Nolan.)

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