Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

Dashiell Hammett A 75th-Anniversary Tribute

 

 

 

 

Stuart M. Kaminsky, author of Devil on My Doorstep and The Dog Who Bit a Policeman

When I am asked to list my 10 (or 15 or whatever) favorite mystery novels of all time, I always include The Ivory Grin. I find it haunting and unforgettable. But then again I find much of Ross Macdonald's work haunting. Sleeping Beauty has much the same effect on me. It's impossible for me to think of one of his books that I didn't like. I would list Macdonald at the top of the list of literary mystery writers just a centimeter below Dostoevsky. Lest the word "literary" turn people away, I mean by it that he always seemed to use the perfect word, the perfect construction of sentence and paragraph. The books are not only a pleasure and satisfaction to read, they are also literature that should be read even by those stubborn many who say, "I don't read mysteries."

Have I gone overboard in my praise of Macdonald? Well, if so, let me go even further. I enjoy Hammett and Chandler, the icons of the hard-boiled genre. I think Macdonald was a far better writer in the same tradition. When I was no more than 14, I wanted to write a Lew Archer novel.

Of course, Archer will always be a young Paul Newman in my imagination. The opening scene of Harper (making the coffee) is perfect.

I don't know what Macdonald's impact is on American crime fiction. I know his impact on me was enormous. Chandler, Dostoevsky, and Macdonald have been standing behind me as I write all of my detective fiction. If I see elements of Macdonald in contemporary mystery fiction, those elements are related to an increased quality of style and an increased respectability in the best of those writing. I see it in the work of such writers as [Donald] Westlake, [Lawrence] Block, [Jonathan] Kellerman, [Bill] Pronzini, [John] Lutz and many more, but you would have to ask them what they think.

My comments on Macdonald have been a bit rambling, but my admiration of his work is focused. There are about 10 writers whose books I can read more than once. Ross Macdonald is two of them.

 

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Wendi Lee, author of Missing Eden and Deadbeat

I have always thought of Lew Archer as the quintessential private eye and Ross Macdonald as a writer's writer. I lived in Long Beach for about a year, and it was one of the greatest thrills of my life to know that I was on Archer turf. Archer is a working-class philosopher who doesn't mince words. My favorite lines in The Instant Enemy are at the very end: "I had time to decide where to shoot him. If I had liked the man I might have shot to kill him. I shot him in the right leg." Macdonald's words are as straight and true as his private eye, Lew Archer.

 

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Bill Crider, author of Murder in the Mist (with Willard Scott) and Murder Is an Art

In a way, Ross Macdonald is to a large degree responsible for my own desire to write mystery fiction. To a certain extent, he's even responsible for my teaching career.

I discovered the novels of Ross Macdonald in the mid-1960s, shortly before Bantam started reissuing the Lew Archer books in uniform editions. The first Archer book I picked up was The Chill, which remains my favorite in the series. I'd read all of Hammett and Chandler by this point, but of the three, it was probably Macdonald's work that alerted me to the real possibilities of the private-eye novel. I wanted to try writing something like that, even though I knew I'd never have the skill to come remotely close to it. I immediately went out and found all of Macdonald's other books. The ones I couldn't find in paperback were easily available in libraries, and I read them all, one after the other. I believe [New York Times critic] Anthony Boucher once described Macdonald's plots as being like "a fishhook in the mind." That's certainly the way they seemed to me, even if they were all really the same plot. A few years later, when it came time for me to write a doctoral dissertation, I chose as my topic "the private-eye hero in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald." I suspect I had a lot more fun reading for my dissertation than most people do.

Macdonald did hear about my dissertation (I've forgotten who told him) and even requested a copy to read. But by the time it was done and I sent him the chapter devoted to his work, he was too deep in his last illness to read it. I regret that I never got a chance to hear what he thought or to thank him for all he'd unwittingly done for me.

 

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Loren D. Estleman, author of The Witchfinder and Jitterbug

In his Hollywood memoir Adventures in the Skin Trade, screenwriter William Goldman reports that he chose Ross Macdonald's first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, for movie adaptation because later in his career, "Macdonald was increasingly leaving the roots of the tough-guy Hammett/Chandler tradition where he began and was getting more interested in character complexity, less with plot."

This is high praise. It means Macdonald was taking full advantage of the strengths of the novel form, which, unlike the visual medium in which Goldman worked, allows access to the depths of the mind. These are meaner streets than the pulp version peopled by Chandler's sleek racketeers and Hammett's smarmy grifters, and require a hero more complex than either the fabled knight-errant or the two-fisted pug of the Black Mask school.

The Id is vast and dark, filled with black money, ivory grins, blue cities, drowning pools, and instant enemies. That Macdonald braved it more than fulfills the suggestion of Chandler (himself a student-turned-master) that there is nothing wrong with the fact that most writers travel on borrowed gas as long as they travel farther than the people they borrowed it from.

 

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Janet Dawson, author of Witness to Evil and Where the Bodies Are Buried

When my first Jeri Howard mystery, Kindred Crimes, was published in 1990, I was interviewed by the book editor of the San Francisco Examiner. He had arranged the interview over the telephone, so I took BART over to San Francisco to meet him.

The first words the editor said to me when he got off the elevator in the lobby were, "I can tell that Ross Macdonald has been a big influence on your work." I thanked him and told him I took that as a compliment, because it was the truth.

When I started reading mysteries as an adult, Ross Macdonald was the writer who hooked me but good. I kept going to the library and buying Macdonald's paperbacks until I'd read them all. It was what Ross Macdonald did with crimes long past and convoluted family relationships that fascinated me. I frequently go looking for my plots and characters in that same dark terrain.

I regret that when I finally got to Santa Barbara in 1982 to attend the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, he was too ill to attend, as he had in years past. It would have been such a treat to meet a man whose work I so admire.

 

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Ron Goulart, author of Groucho Marx, Master Detective and Groucho Marx, Private Eye

There are writers you admire greatly, collect and read avidly, but never try to imitate. For me, Ross Macdonald was in that category.

Back in the 1950s he was just about my favorite writer of detective stories. I can still remember discovering him in 1955 when I picked up the paperback version of Find a Victim. I was commuting from Berkeley to my first job, as a copywriter in a San Francisco ad agency, and I read the book on the bus. There was an intensity to it that carried me off to Macdonald's dark version of Chandler country.

I tracked down the earlier books and bought each new one -- in hardcover -- as it appeared. I was convinced that nobody else covered that ground so well.

But by the middle 1960s I was growing uneasy. I was starting to notice that the new plots seemed to be variations of the earlier plots and that Archer had developed an almost Proustian fascination with things past and would invariably conclude that today's crimes had roots deep in the past.

So in 1965 I wrote a short parody entitled The Peppermint-Striped Goodbye, wherein I kidded Macdonald and, for good measure, Chandler as well. It was full of convoluted similes and crimes with their beginnings long ago. The piece has always had a special place in my heart, since it represents my first sale to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Anthony Boucher reprinted it in his Best Detective Stories collection the following year.

Awhile after that, Ross Macdonald was a guest at a dinner meeting of the Bay Area chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. My wife and I attended, as did Boucher, Joe Gores, and several other local writers. Being much younger then, I actually asked Macdonald if he'd read my spoof of his work. He nodded and said, "I imagine it's difficult to do something like that well." For over 30 years I assumed that what he was implying was, "And you sure didn't do it well, buster." Then only a few days ago, I got a note from Ross Macdonald's biographer, Tom Nolan, in which he mentioned that Macdonald "liked the parody you wrote of him."

That produced a definite Macdonald sort of moment, my finding out after several decades the true solution to a mystery that had begun so long ago.

 

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Burl Barer, author of Capture the Saint

With Ross Macdonald came the shift from "evil as evil" to "error as human." His subject is the exploration of lives, and repercussions of past errors. As he wrote in The Ferguson Affair (1960), "The past has its revenges." His great contribution stylistically -- and this keeps his stuff from getting stale -- is that he writes with one ear to the street, and one ear to the English and American classics. You get a "tough talk" feel of the vernacular but it's, as he termed it, "purified."

As for influence his on me personally, when I read the first three pages of The Drowning Pool, I put down the book, and postponed my novel-writing career at least another decade. At that time, his style passed beyond inspiration into intimidation.

 

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Jeremiah Healy, author of The Only Good Lawyer and The Concise Cuddy

When I began writing the John Francis Cuddy series in the early 1980s, I thought of Ross Macdonald as a latter-day Irish monk who had saved a particular piece of civilization. He and his cohorts hand-carried the private-eye genre from the waning of the Hammett/Chandler Golden Age to the dawning of the Grafton/Paretsky Renaissance.

What I loved most about Macdonald's writing itself, however, was his use of simile. Many of us can depict a dysfunctional family for 300 pages and then twist the knife on the final one, but nobody else so completely captured the subliminal signature of a character or setting by a simple clause that began with the word "like." As much as I enjoy Robert B. Parker and Lawrence Block, I doubt we'll ever see anyone match Ross Macdonald on this aspect of style.

 

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Jacqueline Freimor, who has published short stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, and the Web 'zine Blue Murder

Several years ago, a friend who asked me to critique his novel-in-progress defended his convoluted plot by invoking the plots of his favorite writer, Ross Macdonald. I told my friend that 1) I had never read Ross Macdonald, and 2) if Macdonald's plots were as obscure as my friend's, I didn't want to read him. After I was released from the emergency room -- broken nose, no big deal -- I figured maybe I should give this Macdonald guy a chance, so I picked up a dog-eared, second-hand copy of The Goodbye Look. And was hooked.

It wasn't Macdonald's plots that did it, even though they were compelling (and not confusing at all). Nor was it his detective, Lew Archer, even though Archer was my secret idea of a real American hero: honest, brave, true. No, it was the writing, that fine, dark poetry, those elegant descriptions, those daring metaphors ("He had the sad bad centerless eyes I expected, wormholes in a withered apple with a dark rotten core"). Because Macdonald's novels always delight me as a reader and challenge me as a writer, I can say this: Never has a punch in the nose served anyone so well.

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John Lutz, author of Oops and Final Seconds (with David August)

Here, from The Far Side of the Dollar, is Ross Macdonald making a character real and understandable to his readers: "She smiled, and I caught a glimpse of her life's meaning. She cared for other people. Nobody cared for her." It's the sort of deceptively simple writing that is the reason other authors so much admire Macdonald's work. He wrote primarily about people, and he understood them and the way they moved to the music of the past. That Macdonald was a brilliant technician and natural storyteller is undeniable, but like all great writers his talent went beyond the easily definable. And like all great writers his real strength was in the characters he created. No once since Macdonald has written with such poetic inevitability about people, their secret cares, their emotional scars, their sadness, cowardice, and courage. He reminded the rest of us of what was possible in our genre. We should remember.

 

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Phillip DePoy, author of Too Easy and Easy as One, Two, Three

For me, Lew Archer was a bridge between Hammer/Chandler noir heroes and post-punk Elmore Leonard characters. Archer helped me understand how a detective like mine, Flap Tucker, could split the difference between having the heart of a 1920s tough guy, and being a 90s guy so tough his heart was hard.

I remember when Paul Newman was making the movie of The Drowning Pool, and he was interviewed on one of the television talk shows. He said, "A thing I really enjoy about playing the part of Lew Archer is that I can wear my own clothes." That was part of Macdonald's style. It helped me create characters real enough to wear their own clothes -- or the reader's clothes -- or maybe Paul Newman's clothes, if it came to that.

 

Week 1

Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, and other contemporary novelists sound off on Macdonald's writing and legacy.

Week 2

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

Ross Macdonald Quotes