Sunday, May 03, 2015

Macdonald Mines His Own Life

Toronto author Linwood Barclay had a splendid piece in this last Friday’s Globe and Mail newspaper, assessing the new Library of America omnibus, Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan (and about which I also wrote recently). As a college student, Barclay was fortunate enough to correspond at some length with private-eye fictionist Macdonald, and he offers Globe & Mail readers some of his memories of the man. But I also like what he wrote about the stories featured in Nolan’s collection:
The first two novels are of the hard-boiled variety, and owe much to Chandler and Hammett. But Macdonald believed he could do better than that, particularly better than Chandler, whose loose plots were designed to create good scenes, whereas Macdonald viewed plot as a vehicle for meaning.

His approach has evolved by the time he writes
The Doomsters, about an escapee from a psychiatric facility who comes to Archer for help, and The Galton Case, in which a woman engages Archer to find her long-lost son. Archer himself is rarely the story. He’s not hired by old girlfriends with long legs and ample bosoms who now find themselves in a jam. As Macdonald himself had said, Archer was so two-dimensional that if he turned sideways, he would disappear. I wouldn’t go that far. Archer feels fully realized, has a strong moral code, a sense of decency. But he is also a device, a kind of gardener who unearths dirt to allow sunshine in and expose diseased roots. Unlike the earlier novels, where Archer often tangled with common thugs, in The Doomsters and The Galton Case the detective’s clients are more upscale, but their sins run just as deep.

The latter is seen by many as Macdonald’s masterpiece, and it may well have been at the time, but his career highs would come in later decades with
The Chill, Black Money, and The Underground Man. The Galton Case, however, marked a period where Macdonald mined, in a more direct way, his own life for material. It explores his feeling of displacement that came from being born in the United States but raised in Canada. Plus, there’s the theme of the absent father: Macdonald’s abandoned the family when he was a boy; in Galton, Archer is on the trail of a young man named John who’s in search of his own. (Macdonald’s father’s name was John.) Many of the 18 Archer novels, and short stories (one called, interestingly, “Gone Girl”), are about disappearances, and it doesn’t seem to be reading too much into things to surmise that much of Macdonald’s writing was about finding what he himself had lost.
Click here to find Barclay’s complete article.

1 comment:

Brian Busby said...

A very fine piece. Thank you for pointing it out.