Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Connelly, author of Blood Work and Angels Flight

Ross Macdonald was simply one of the best. From a personal view, he was probably as influential to me as Chandler. He helped create the myth of Southern California that is so attractive to many writers. He had such a concise way of writing, of cutting right to the point in social commentary, or delineating the foibles of the human heart and soul, or exposing the brutalities that family members visit upon one another.

I came to him late. The first book of his I read was The Blue Hammer. Of course, it was a joy to realize when I was finished that I had a wealth of Lew Archer stories to go back and read. And I did. This was about the time I was thinking that I wanted to write for a living and Macdonald's books showed me the possibility that crime novels could be art. I still remember in the opening pages of The Blue Hammer how he described a woman's body as having been kept trim by tennis and anger. I read that and knew I was on to something. I was home.

 

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Sue Grafton, author of M Is for Malice and N Is for Noose

When I began to explore the idea of writing a crime novel of my own, one of the first books I read was Ross Macdonald's slender volume, On Crime Writing, published by Capra Press in 1973. His view of the genre and his attitude toward his work is beautifully documented in the writing he did on the subject. "Detective story writers," he said, "are often asked why we devote our talents to working in a mere popular convention. One answer is that there may be more to our use of the convention than meets the eye." And later, "Disguise is the imaginative device which permits the work to be both private and public, to half-divulge the writer's crucial secrets while deepening the whole community's sense of its own mysterious life."

Ross Macdonald's sometimes jaded observations about the moral climate of Southern California and his juxtaposition of decency and fair-mindedness with the elements of personal loss and social corruption resonate throughout the rich body of his work. Confident, consistent, he perfected his craft over the course of 18 [Lew Archer] novels. Even now, in idle moments, I return to his writing, not only for the inspiration he provides, but for the quite pleasure of his prose.

 

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John Shannon, author of The Concrete River and The Cracked Earth

I read my first Lew Archer in 1980 when I was just home from a shattered love affair in Europe, demoralized, jobless, and carless in LA. In a used bookstore in San Pedro I found a battered copy of The Moving Target, and so I read the first Archer by sheer accident. "The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money," I read, and was hooked by the image, words that made me see. Over the next few months I read every one of the books to keep my spirits up. It's probably not a good idea to read them all in a run like that. You notice the heavy overburden of Freud that you have to shovel off to get at the Millar, and you notice the similarity of the stories -- the tendency for the sins of the parents to be visited on the children. But none of that matters in the face of that wonderful writing and that wry intelligence.

I never ever care whodunit. If I go at all, I'm just along for the glorious ride, sitting shotgun beside a mind and a courage I trust to carry me down those mean streets, and show me what's going on there, and get me back safely. It's a shame Macdonald's books don't seem to film very well, because I have a feeling I'd love to ride with Lew Archer even more than Philip Marlowe (and far more than that hard-eyed Sam Spade). Archer was tough (of course) but wise and calm, too, and deep inside was that integrity that made him your Horatio, your best friend. And Millar knew how to write like an angel. I'd miss him even more, but I find you can reread him all you want.

 

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Lawrence Block, author of Tanner on Ice and Everybody Dies

In the spring of 1987 my wife and I were touring West Africa, and, like W.C. Fields, we had to live on food and water for two weeks -- we had somehow neglected to bring along anything to read. The countries we visited were former French colonies, and books in English were thin on the ground. At the newsstand of our hotel in Lomé, in Togo, we had a last chance at the printed word before departing for a week upcountry. I found four Ross Macdonald paperbacks, all printed in India, and all battered and careworn. The proprietor had the colossal nerve to ask 10 dollars each for them, and I was desperate enough to pay it.

Of course I'd read all of them before, and more than once. With other authors this might have been a problem. With Ross Macdonald, it never matters. Five minutes after I read the last word of a Lew Archer novel, every detail of its plot slips out of my memory. It generally turns out that everything was the result of something perfectly awful that happened 40 years ago in Canada, but I can't keep it straight while I'm reading it, and, as I've said, it vanishes without a trace once I'm done.

So I can experience over and over again the powerful writing, the rich characterization, and the entirely unique worldview. Kept me sane in Togo, and often enough before and since.

 

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Martha C. Lawrence, author of The Cold Heart of Capricorn and Aquarius Descending

"Men in colored shirts and seersucker suits, women in slacks and midriff dresses displaying various grades of abdomen, moved in and out of California Spanish shops and office buildings. Nobody looked at the mountains standing above the town, but the mountains were there, making them all look silly."

-- Lew Archer, from The Moving Target


Without question, Ross Macdonald is my most beloved past master and the writer who (along with Sue Grafton) irresistibly seduced me into mysteries. I hadn't even been born when he wrote the above paragraph, yet as with all fine literature, the prose feels immediate and relevant. Lew Archer is a post-war P.I., but he observes with ageless wisdom the timeless terrain of human frailty. Set against a backdrop that's been my lifelong home -- California -- Macdonald's stories have special resonance for me. He saw the beauty in this arid land and understood the symbolic significance of its position on the far edge of the continent. His stories remind us that at some point, escape ends. There comes a place and a time when we can no longer run from ourselves without returning to the very place we're running from.

 

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Steve Hamilton, author of A Cold Day in Paradise

In the first paragraph of The Chill, MacDonald describes a courtroom, and how the yellow light leaking through the windows picks out "random details in the room: the glass water cooler standing against the paneled wall opposite the jury box, the court reporter's carmine-tipped fingers playing over her stenotype machine, Mrs. Perrine's experienced eyes watching me across the defense table." These "random details" are nothing less than the mark of a great writer at work. And those shafts of light reach through the entire story, exposing sins that are anything but random. I love reading his books because he knew how to write them. It's that simple.

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Richard Barre, author of The Ghosts of Morning and Blackheart Highway

It is impossible to contemplate the modern detective novel without thinking of Ross Macdonald's contributions to it. No less than Hammett and Chandler, he was both conduit and pump, taking a literary stream and thrusting it forth with new purpose and velocity, there to branch out and nourish the many forms it has become. Every writer (and reader) who takes heart in past acids burbling up to corrode the present, who fathoms that humanity does indeed the novel make -- underline novel -- owes a debt to Ross Macdonald.

 

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Laura Lippman, author of Charm City and Butchers Hill

I think one needs to come to Ross Macdonald early or late. I came late, after I had already started writing. If I read him even a year earlier, I probably would have abandoned my ambitions. He makes it look so easy, so effortless. His prose sings in the most ordinary moments -- that first client meeting, the introduction of a lovely-but-lethal lady, descriptions of the weather.

The way I see it, you can find your true love at 16 and beat the odds, or you can hook up with him later, when you're a little bruised and worse for wear, and it's all the sweeter. I love Macdonald more for what I went through before I found him.

 

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John Peyton Cooke, author of The Chimney Sweeper and Haven

When I tell people that Ross Macdonald was our best mystery novelist, I offer as proof four lines of dialogue from The Moving Target that reveal what kind of writer he was and, more important, was not. The exchange is from chapter three, in which Lew Archer discusses his newest case with an old friend, ex-D.A. Bert Graves, whom he hasn't seen in years. We begin with Graves:

 

"How's Sue?"

"Ask her lawyer. She didn't like the company I kept."


"I'm sorry to hear it, Lew."


"Don't be." I changed the subject. "Doing much trial work?"


This is Ross Macdonald at his most deft, because as far as I can tell, it is just about as much information as we ever learn about Lew Archer's marriage and divorce.

In the hands of one of today's P.I. novelists, this brisk dialogue would be expanded into a tedious chapter or three in which the P.I. would discuss with his or her old friend every last detail about the marriage, divorce, 12-step programs, girlfriends/boyfriends, mortgages, problem pets, pet peeves, and all manner of miscellany that have nothing to do with the plot. Although Lew Archer seldom reveals "facts" about himself, we learn everything we need to know by how he treats the people he encounters. And I have to admit that, from all I have learned about Lew Archer in all the books, I have fallen tragically in love with the guy.

 

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James W. Hall, author of Red Sky at Night and Body Language

Like Macdonald I'm an English professor who writes mysteries, and maybe that accounts for some of the connection I feel for his work. Or perhaps it is his sensitive use of environment, landscape, and setting that creates such a powerful backdrop to his stories. Forest fires, oil spills, et cetera, which counterpoint the raging action, or leakage from deep below the surface of the earth that is also occurring in the foreground. Because I too have a strong interest in the environment, and though I write about Florida, the California landscape is not so terribly different.

And I've also come to rely on one of Macdonald's stock stories: the impact of some long-ago injury or act of violence that is still reverberating today. It is a Freudian story in a way. But it is also a Southern, almost Faulknerian story: the power of the past to control the destinies of people living today. It's a theme I've returned to again and again in my own work.

But the reason I keep at least a couple of his novels on the desk next to my keyboard is so I can continually examine Macdonald's descriptions of people. He was a master at the quick take. He can nail a character in two sentences, describing their eyes, or some feature that seems to hover over them. His use of simile and metaphor is superb. But it is those descriptions of peoples' faces, especially their eyes, which constantly astonish me.

Is he a great writer? Of course he is. Has he had a powerful impact on American literature? I don't think his influence is great. But his impact on this writer has been immense. He stands as a beacon to me, a model of how rich and literarily significant these "genre" novels can be.

 

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Fredrick D. Huebner, author of Picture Postcard and Methods of Execution

Ross Macdonald took the realistic crime novel beyond the mean streets, and into the American home. He portrayed, in acid-tinged sunlight, our affluent society at mid-century, gleaming on the surface, corroded at the core. His great contribution was to give the crime novel a realistic psychological center. His character, Lew Archer, was painfully honest and endlessly compassionate, preferring to take a beating rather than give one. The fictional murders and complex plots that Archer untangled came from the darkest, yet most common, places: the broken hearts and rooted sorrows of dysfunctional childhoods; the innocent lives thrown away on the dark side of the American dream.

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Charles Knief, author of Sand Dollars and Emerald Flash

I first encountered [Ross Macdonald] in a hospital library while I was recovering from some inconvenient wounds received during the contemporary police action of the late 1960s. I was looking for, well, something, but I wasn't sure what. Reading mysteries was new to me, although what I discovered was that, more often than not, stories from that genre had real meat on them. The good ones tackled something profound in addition to the plot. I liked that. Not too much murder and mayhem, but served up with side dishes of Life's Major Questions. And all for the price of a library card, or, if I felt like splurging, the $6.95 for the hardcover.

Something about his novels spoke to me in ways other novels in other genres could not. Macdonald's Lew Archer reminded me of one of those Western heroes who spent a life apart from his society, while at the same time he could not help but be profoundly marked by it. His plots were woven from generations, the motivations honed from what had evidently been a lifetime of observation. Macdonald knew about life. And he knew about people. He had a rich imagination, sure, and that was what provided the stories that carried us along. But we met the real people who lurked between the covers; his people were living, breathing characters, not mere caricatures. As time went on, I read all of the Archer books, enjoying the stories, learning about life's greater questions. I think that some of his studies on the human condition became a part of my psyche, as good books tend to do to us. We absorb the great ideas, rather than just read them, and they merge with our cellular structure. Because that is a truth, I know that Lew Archer lives on in many of us.

I recall that I felt as if someone close to me had died when I heard the news of Macdonald's passing. I never knew his real name until then, and it made no difference at all when I learned it. I felt that I knew everything I needed to know about the man, had learned it from his novels. I guessed that we all would miss him, his stories, his observations of the human condition, of generational warfare and the karmic effect one generation has on the other, his questions about us, and how we lived, and how we coped, and how we died. He would be missed. Lew would be missed. And we would all be richer for his having visited us with his pen, and we would be poorer because at last his pen was silent. But as books tend to hang around long after the authors have shuffled off this mortal coil, Lew Archer remains, alive as ever, still able to pose the eternal questions, still able to merge with the cells of another generation, and make their lives that much richer for it. | April 1999

 

Ross Macdonald Quotes

Week 2

Richard North Patterson, S.J. Rozan, Max Allan Collins, and other contemporary novelists sound off on Macdonald's writing and legacy.

Stuart Kaminsky, Jeremiah Healy, Janet Dawson, Loren D. Estleman, and many others weigh in on Ross Macdonald's literary contributions.