Darkness under the sun


California noir – a genre that probably began with Raymond Chandler, and is still going today, with James Ellroy widely admired. The Knife is a huge fan of Chandler, and occasional masters such as James Crumley, but this post is written to laud the productive and pehaps underrated Ross Macdonald.

Chandler was rightly famous for his metaphors and similes. It’s also only right to give him credit as being the writer who developed the sparse laconic style of the Philip Marlowe novels. But however good Chandler was, Macdonald, via the character of Lew Archer, is as good, or even better.

The prose is uniformly taut and arid, despite his descriptive gifts. It’s probably counterproductive to quote chunks out of context, but here’s a taste:

The sitting room had the closed musty atmosphere of a Victorian parlour. Some of the furniture was sheeted; the heavy drapes were closed against the morning. Wycherly turned on an overhead light, looked around at the effect with disapproval, and went to the windows. I was struck by the violent way he jerked at the draw-cord of the drapes. Like a man hanging a cat.

Sunlight poured in, migrating across the room to a small picture on the wall above the marble fireplace. Composed of blobs and splashes of raw colour, it was one of those paintings which are either very advanced or very backward, I never can tell which. Wycherly looked at the painting as if was a Rorschach test, and he had failed it.

Archer gives little away. He’s weary, divorced, no children, a veteran of Okinawa, probably the worst of the Pacific island battles, and he cares about people, despite himself. He is attractive to women, yet avoids commitment and seems to practise a degree of asceticism which comes from a deeper motive, only hinted at.

There’s a lot of these novels, at least eighteen.  The quality doesn’t drop and so there are no “best of” recommendations, in my view. The Underground Man, The Chill, and the first one, The Moving Target are all terrific, but Macdonald is nothing if not consistently high in the quality of his writing.

Another thing that he shares with Chandler is a bit more quirky, being the intelligibility of the plots. You can follow them, if not easily, but like Chandler, in a peculiar way it doesn’t really matter. The pleasure lies in the writing, the character of Archer, and the phenomenal sense of California as a place of virtual perfection, yet teeming with the darkest aspects of humanity.

Macdonald is well represented on the net, try particularly Tobias Jones, William Marling, this superb extended tribute in January magazine, and Karl-Erik Lindkvist’s excellent Ross Macdonald Files.

If Amazon don’t have them, eBay will.  Macdonald is one of the greats of American literature. Try him.


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