FEATURE

Beauty Is Sleuth

Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s: The Zebra-Striped Hearse / The Chill / The Far Side of the Dollar: Library of America #279 (The Library of America) BY Ross Macdonald. edited by Tom Nolan. Library of America. Hardcover, 792 pages. $35.
Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdona edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan. Arcade Publishing. . .
Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s: The Way Some People Die / The Barbarous Coast / The Doomsters / The Galton Case: (Library of America #264) BY Ross Macdonald. edited by Tom Nolan. Library of America. Hardcover, 900 pages. $37.

ALL I HAD WITHIN easy reach was a yellow rain slicker, the kind with metal buckles and no buttons. It wasn’t a trench coat, but it would have to do. I was seven years old, give or take, and I wanted to go outside and play detective. I had no case to solve. But I was going to walk around the garden-apartment housing project in Hartford, my known universe back then, until I found one. As it was the middle of a summer’s day, I was certain that whatever mystery awaited me outside couldn’t stay hidden for long. Off I went, thinking myself inconspicuous, though I wasn’t. My parents were having a backyard cookout that day with neighbors and relatives—all of whom, I’ve been told for decades since, stopped whatever conversation they were having the moment they saw this stern, solemn little boy tramping along the sidewalks in rain gear under a blazing sun. It was one of my aunts who provided the punch line that would for all time wrap this yellow-colored phantasm appearing before her in a tidy rhetorical ribbon: “Well,” she said with more pity than ridicule, “in his world, it’s raining.”

Such was the romance of the detective hero back in the ’50s that its sweep could absorb a small, frail, working-class daydreamer. There seemed almost as many private eyes on TV in 1959 (when I was seven) as there were cowboys, and this was neither accident nor anomaly. The gunfighter and the detective were self-contained and singularly competent heroic archetypes for an age of anxiety, embodying mass culture’s yearnings for autonomy, even mastery, over threatening, hostile environments. Because he was, most of the time, depicted in contemporary surroundings (and in American television’s black-and-white primordial days, he was almost always a “he”), the detective was easier for urban dwellers to relate to as he engaged in his dogged, often fraught quest for Truth and Justice.

I still struggle with a hard definition of what I thought was worth emulating in detective heroes, but I tend toward labeling its essence as the will to “know.” Not merely to “know” facts or details or even the resolutions of things (as if that were always possible), but to carry oneself through the world with a kind of self-contained omniscience, regarding everything and everybody one encountered with an open mind and a skeptical heart, or the reverse. My ideal detective may not know everything that’s happening immediately around him, but he intrinsically—and covertly—understands the world’s secret angles and curves while concealing his intentions and open-carrying his compassion. Maybe he can’t save the world. But whatever is yielded through curiosity and resolve will be sufficient enough to move an intransigent world a few significant steps beyond its limitations. Before ever reading Thomas Pynchon’s V., my own baby-step imagination intuited the ideal of the detective living by the credo of Pynchon’s gnomic jazz innovator McClintic Sphere: “Keep cool, but care.”

By these criteria, Lew Archer came to be my dog, my role model and Main Man. He was cut from the same rough hide as the classic American private-detective hero, except that, through eighteen novels and fourteen short stories published over more than twenty-five years, he gradually cut down on the wisecracks and fisticuffs for which his counterparts were better known and spent more time watching and listening to people. The seven Archer novels by Ross Macdonald, unwinding in chronological order across two Library of America volumes, give you some idea of this transition. In 1951’s The Way Some People Die, the third installment of the series, Archer’s narrative tone emits wounded sarcasm similar to Philip Marlowe’s, though the imagery he summons swings with an even rawer energy: “A piece of money takes its feeling from the people that have handled it. This money twisted in my hand like a fat green tomato-worm.” In 1956’s The Barbarous Coast, a Hollywood-inflected dark comedy of manners, Archer’s patter assumes the kind of chipper polish Marlowe and other hard-boiled romantics take on immediately after (say) getting punched in the face: “My head was cool and clear, like an aquarium, but the bright ideas and noble intentions that swam around in it had no useful connection with my legs.” Such wit under pressure, though not always as original, or as graceful, as here, would have been enough to make Archer a sturdy perennial among his peers: a thinking man’s Mike Hammer with an affinity for lyrical description of lurid landscapes. Or of dreamscapes: “I was dreaming about a hairless ape who lived in a cage by himself. His trouble was that people were always trying to get in. It kept the ape in a state of nervous tension. I came out of sleep sweating, aware that somebody was at the door.”

That the next Archer novel, 1958’s The Doomsters, kicks off with a bad dream hints that Archer’s creator, a California-born, Canada-reared Coleridge scholar named Kenneth Millar who adopted Ross Macdonald as his pen name, is about to alter both the series and the private-eye genre. The plot seems conventional enough: The “somebody” at Archer’s door is a drug addict named Carl, who wants Archer to find out whether or not his father, a wealthy, influential US senator, really died by accident. Not for the first time, definitely not for the last, Archer dives into the thorny, weedy morass of duplicity and death-dealing within an aristocratic California family.

Doomsters retains the somewhat frenetic momentum of its more traditional predecessors, along with their elaborate plotting. (Over time, Millar’s narrative tactics proved superior to, if more extravagant than, those of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, his only peers as a seminal influence in American mystery writing.) But you sense a different kind of urgency straining to emerge in Archer’s thinking, one that transcends the crime fighter’s need to seek and “nail” a culprit, thus fulfilling the unspoken pact mystery readers have with the genre: to leave them with the catharsis of “knowing” everything in the end and the accompanying satisfaction of finding tidy solutions in a messy world.

But the world stays relatively messy at Doomsters’ conclusion. Even with answers at hand, Archer is left less with satisfaction than with disquieting regret, mostly for lost opportunities in his own past, when he was, as he describes himself, “a street boy . . . gang-fighter, thief, poolroom lawyer.” Never before had Archer disclosed as much of himself to the reader as he does here—and rarely would he again. He instead became, as Macdonald/Millar would later write in a 1965 essay “The Writer as Detective Hero,” “less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.” The break with traditional crime-and-punishment in detective fiction may best be expressed on The Doomsters’ last page, when Archer ruminates, “The circuit of guilty time was too much like a snake with its tail in its mouth, consuming itself. If you looked too long, there’d be nothing left of it, or you. We were all guilty. We had to learn to live with it.”

Such sentiments weren’t what mystery readers, including me, expected, or wanted, to hear. We wanted the guilty to be exposed, punished and put away, so the innocent, in whose company we placed ourselves, could feel better about the cold, indifferent universe. It sounded like what Archer was saying, beginning with this novel, was that there was likely something messed up about our urge to feel that catharsis and that there were consequences to knowing even the right answers. You could take this as an affront to the old romance—or a more melancholy and harshly beautiful variation. I came to prefer the latter view. And I wasn’t alone.

Eudora Welty, too, saw a shift in Millar’s style. In the 1970s, the two writers developed a warm, intimate rapport, mostly through letters (their correspondence has been astutely and sympathetically assembled by Welty scholar Suzanne Marrs and Millar biographer Tom Nolan, who also edited the Library of America’s Macdonald collections). In a Thanksgiving greeting, the Mississippi author cited Doomsters’ “remarkable . . . last couple of pages where before a reader’s eye the world of your fiction seems to be going through a change—like the first prescience on its far horizon of a ship soon to be in sight, just under the curve.”

As Nolan and other chroniclers of Millar’s life have elsewhere noted, there may have been personal reasons behind this sea change in the Archer series. His marriage to Margaret Millar, herself a decorated mystery-thriller writer of distinction, had already been rocky when, in 1956, their daughter Linda was indicted in a fatal hit-and-run accident for killing a thirteen-year-old boy. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was later treated at California’s Camarillo State Mental Hospital. The family moved to Menlo Park, where Ken Millar began psychiatric treatment. The Doomsters, he later wrote, became a kind of informal “diary of [his] psychic progress” and helped move Archer more to the backdrop of what subsequently became a series of novels depicting the social and emotional chaos barely contained beneath the placid, sunny, and prosperous surface of Southern California suburban life.

The Galton Case (1959), regarded by Macdonald and his readers as the series’ breakthrough, feels deeper and heftier, despite its relative brevity, than any of the Archer novels before it. The “case” is that of a missing heir to a large fortune. The heir’s ailing mother, who with the father had tossed the son and his pregnant wife out of their house, hires Archer to find out what has happened to the couple and their child. The heir, a published poet, is dead, but the child, a son, is very much alive—and eligible to receive his grandmother’s considerable financial legacy. Yet despite the younger man’s physical resemblance to his father, Archer comes to suspect a conspiracy to deceive the family. Archer’s itinerary throughout this twisted, multilayered plot takes him from his client’s estate in Santa Teresa (Macdonald’s fictionalized name for Santa Barbara) to San Francisco, Reno (where he wakes up with a broken jaw wired shut), Ann Arbor, and Ontario, where he finally picks up on “a glimmering of the truth.”

The trajectory roughly matches the map of Millar’s own life and, in a 1968 essay, “Writing The Galton Case,” he concedes that the book’s “central figure,” rather than Archer, was “an imaginary boy whom I recognized as the darker side of my own remembered boyhood.” The essay also discloses the author’s preoccupation with an ancient Greek play and cites a notebook entry he made while laying out The Galton Case’s plot: “Oedipus angry vs. parents for sending him away.”

Oedipus. Keep that name in mind because, leaving aside the Freudian insinuations (and Macdonald’s books are routinely described as marrying Freudian psychology with the private-eye story), when speaking of Oedipus we are speaking of literature’s First Sleuth—the earliest example of a hero seeking answers to a mysterious death, to know what really happened to his father in search of satisfaction. Only with Oedipus, there is no satisfaction in knowledge, just shock, self-loathing, and, finally, self-mutilation. We have known for millennia that finding stuff out isn’t always a relief. It can hurt, maim, and kill . . . or keep you in therapy for decades. Where’s the catharsis in that? Millar’s bad news: There isn’t any.

If it’s possible to imagine good things coming around to those affected by The Galton Case’s denouement—after their deceptions have been exposed and their histories unspooled—the novels that follow relentlessly undermine that sense of optimism, leaving readers feeling varying degrees of loss and desolation. The best of those novels, The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1963), The Chill (1964), and The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), are collected in the Library of America’s second Macdonald volume, and they all pretty much follow the same pattern: A blustery, pompous older person is driven to near-hysterical rage by something a younger person, usually an offspring, has done or is accused of doing and hires Archer (who often receives perfunctory verbal abuse from the older person before agreeing to the case) to track down and/or stop the younger person from doing whatever the older person fears most.

On the surface, such plot devices sound as formulaic and as ritualized as those in any Agatha Christie whodunit. And yet Macdonald’s prose in these years distinguished itself with an equipoise of wit and lyricism that became more assured with each novel. Chandler, for all his disdain of Macdonald’s early prose, would likely have envied the nuances wafting through Archer’s assessment of a potential client on the first page of The Zebra-Striped Hearse: “She had the kind of style that didn’t go on with her make-up, and she was about my age. As a man gets older, if he knows what is good for him, the women he likes are getting older, too. The trouble is that most of them are married.”

The pacing in these early-to-mid-’60s novels is steadier, no matter how wildly, even feverishly the plots twist and bend along the way. The Chill, whose complications come at you like speeding SUVs while you’re crossing the Pacific Coast Highway on a busy Friday, often seems, in its conception, as bonkers as its high-strung characters, who lead Archer down several false paths as he tries to determine whether a runaway bride murdered a sultry college professor. Moments of relative calm arrive with Macdonald’s evocations of the surrounding landscape, especially when the “low gray wall of fog” materializes at various points in the book. Reading these books, one imagines Millar’s affection for California’s physical attributes beginning to grow into an impassioned concern for his local environment, which he frequently expressed in his letters to Welty throughout the ’70s.

Welty writes back to him at one point to say that The Far Side of the Dollar “really is securely among your strongest and best ones.” Coming back to the novel after decades, I know what she means, but I’m challenged to determine why this is so. There’s more rigor and tautness in the prose, but it’s basically just as dry and evocative as it is in its predecessors. The story line, a missing teenage boy who may or may not be involved in his own kidnapping, fits the pattern first laid out in Galton. Perhaps it’s the relative composure with which Macdonald renders his characters, whether it’s an insolent reform-school boy who barely sheathes his longing for a home, or a jazz musician whose African American heritage Macdonald shrewdly and delicately lets readers discern for themselves through speech and mannerism. As with The Chill, Far Side keeps spinning and rolling possibilities out till its last couple pages while building its set pieces with greater precision. (A burial scene in the garden of an abandoned hotel is capped by a shooting so ugly and pointless as to make the whole scene feel perfectly rendered amid the novel’s sunlit squalor.) Once again, the ending leaves you feeling more disquieted than comforted. This installment doesn’t do anything different. Just better. And in the coming years, as his fame and stature elevated him toward higher literary circles, Macdonald would only intermittently match Far Side of the Dollar’s lean, taut graces.

And Archer? If anything, he becomes even more part of the background to the chaotic cases he attempts to solve. Somehow, though, the romance of the detective persists in Archer’s resolve to stay in pursuit, no matter how many private or unseemly horrors are dislodged by his indomitable empathy; his reason for existence is increasingly based on the will to understand, not just to know. These days, the detective’s romantic value in popular culture has been trumped by teams of superheroes, post-millennial surrogates for our desperation to master our environment, to prevail, to dominate, to win. “Understanding,” to such sensibilities, sounds like settling for less, if not an outright capitulation to reality. But I still believe, despite the present digital age’s impulse to dismiss curiosity as unnecessary (“I mean, hey, who needs a detective when the Internet gives you all the answers?”), that knowledge and salvation are in no way mutually exclusive. It’s both the detective hero’s credo and his burden to keep looking, because, the more you understand, the more likely it is you’ll save somebody, even yourself.

I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s what I tell myself whenever I put on a trench coat in pursuit of whatever the truth is calling itself today.

Gene Seymour’s last article for Bookforum was about James Brown. He has written about film and jazz and is working on a collection of essays.