Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“Other People’s Lives Are My Business”

If you haven’t already come across it, there’s an excellent piece about detective novelist Ross Macdonald available on the Web site of The New Republic magazine. Penned by Pulitzer Prize finalist Nicholas Dawidoff, and published in association with the release this month of The Ross Macdonald Collection—Library of America’s boxed set of 11 of Macdonald’s Lew Archer private eye novels—the article elegantly captures the character of the books’ protagonist:
Part of the thrill of the Archer books is Archer’s great gift for self-scrutiny, the way he can monitor his own internal fluctuations—“I was feeling sweaty and cynical”—in parallel to his penetrating assessments of others. Archer’s ambivalence about everything, most of all himself, makes his insight credible. His unattainable aspiration is to be a good man. “I keep trying, when I remember to,” he confesses in The Barbarous Coast, “but it keeps getting tougher every year. Like trying to chin yourself with one hand.” In 1958’s The Doomsters, the book Macdonald wrote after his only child, Linda, fell into serious trouble with the law, Archer sits in a cheap hotel room and feels a stab of pain and loss: “Perhaps the pain was for myself; the loss was of a self I had once imagined.” When thinking about crime and criminals, Archer never forgets that he, like Macdonald, is someone who could have gone either way in life. ...

Many of Archer’s cases involve someone missing—often a fiancée or a child—and loss is Macdonald’s great subject. ... As Archer digs into a present calamity, he must inevitably trace it through earlier generations of calamity. All the prodigal daughters, abandoned sons, and shipwrecked girls next door got that way for a reason. The wounded orphan Davy Spanner from
The Instant Enemy steals cars to go “grief riding,” and is cursed with a temper that, when it ignites, makes him imagine violent enemies everywhere. Young, neglected Sandy, in the same book, acts out because “by getting into trouble Sandy had converted herself into an unforgettable presence.” Archer turns up the worst that can happen in a childhood: There are rape victims, suicides, runaways, bulimics, a boy with “white scars down his back, hundreds of them, like fading cuneiform cuts.” When somebody remarks how hard it is to figure kids these days, Archer says, “It always was.”
Click here to read the whole of Dawidoff’s Macdonald critique.

1 comment:

Art Taylor said...

Great essay! Thanks for sharing it here. Would've missed otherwise.