Can't wait for "True Detective 2"? Dive into Ross Macdonald's California noir masterpieces

The legendary writer of psychoanalytic mysteries captured the culture of postwar California better than anyone

Published May 16, 2015 10:00PM (EDT)

Colin Farrell in "True Detective"         (HBO/Lacey Terrell)
Colin Farrell in "True Detective" (HBO/Lacey Terrell)

Noir-heads and private-eye fans have long known that the detective novels of Ross Macdonald hit a sweet spot between plot-driven pulp writing and character-driven literary fiction. Inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett (especially “The Maltese Falcon”), taught about symbolism by W.H. Auden, hailed by Eudora Welty for “serious and complex” work, he wrote 18 novels driven by the gloomy, ambiguous detective Lew Archer.

Macdonald’s  following is not limited to fellow crime writers like James Ellroy, Robert Crais, Sue Grafton and Denise Hamilton. Musician Warren Zevon, who shared some of his sensibility,  dedicated an album to him. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami was shaped by him.

“Ross Macdonald is hard-boiled detective-writing's great formalist,” novelist Jonathan Lethem told me. “He took Chandler's quirks and intuitions and turned them into a set of incisive instruments for making his great, decades-long dissection of the culture of postwar Southern California — not only its underside, but its topside too.” Lethem’s New York noir, “Motherless Brooklyn,” was inspired in part by the Archer novels.

Some of Macdonald's books tell not only of a crime committed and a mystery solved, but sketch a social history of ’50s and ’60s California -- the gradual suburbanization, the holding out of landed gentry, the breakdown of the family and the development of youth subcultures like the Beats, surfers and early hippies.

Music and culture critic Greil Marcus has read all of the books. “If you read Macdonald's psychoanalytic mysteries in order, as the theme took on greater and greater power for him, the feeling that comes up builds book by book: that just as the reader is scared to reach the ending, so is Lew Archer, and so is Ross Macdonald.”

The Library of America has just released “Four Novels of the 1950s,” edited by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan. (Ross Macdonald was the pen name of California-born, Canadian-reared Kenneth Millar, who lived in Santa Barbara with his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar, and died in 1983.)

We spoke to Nolan, a veteran journalist, from his home in Los Angeles.

Let’s start with Macdonald in general. There are hundreds of detective novels coming out every year. For people who don’t know Macdonald’s work, why is this guy worth reading? Similarly, why is it worth Library of America, which is sort of the guardian of the literary world, putting out 60-year-old novels?

Well, as you know, they put out the best of American literature, including nonfiction and speeches and poetry. Of course, a lot of the things they publish are much, much older than 60 years. But Macdonald matters because I think he’s one of the finest fiction writers in American literature, not just detective fiction but all of American modern fiction. The things that are most interesting and appealing about him, and valuable to people still, are the beauty of the expression, of the language, the beauty of the prose, which has poetic qualities and is informed by a great lyric talent. The beauty of the expression, and it’s the emotional content and the human experience that touches people in the heart in ways that are very special to a lot of readers. A lot of empathy, which is not always the same as sympathy, but often it is. It represents a lot of experience, it’s beautifully expressed, that a lot of people can relate to.

Although he initially wrote about criminals and traditional elements of crime fiction, as he matured as a writer and a person, he dealt more with universal situations. You could say his overarching theme was the dysfunctional family, which I think anybody can relate to, because all our families were to some degree dysfunctional. He drew on his own youth and on his own experience as a parent, and the themes that recur in his books are things that were crucial to his own life.

Macdonald’s detective Archer, who is in all four of these novels, is harder to get a handle on in some ways than Chandler’s Marlowe or Hammett’s Spade -- that may be because Bogart’s portrayal of both characters was so memorable. But there’s still something elusive about Archer. What can you tell us about him? 

He felt that the character of the detective was really not the most important character in the books. In fact, he started out thinking the perpetrator was of more interest than the detective — there was opportunity for tragedy, with the criminal — but in later years, he felt the victim was the most important or significant character.

But he did include some information in every book about Archer: a physical description, or some biographical facts, so that if you do read, you can go through and notice carefully, all the books and all the short stories, the novellas, you can compose a biography of Archer if you will. I did something like that in the long introduction that I wrote for “The Archer Files.”

So there is more to him than initially met the eye, and I think Macdonald said, late in life, that in that regard, less was more as far as Archer’s backstory. Giving people a little bit at a time did lead to a sense, at least, if only subliminal. You certainly have a sense of Archer, and the way he narrates things I think gives you a lot of personality and the emotional weather of the fellow who’s going through these things. And the fact that he spends his life trying to help people, really, for a living, but still, it’s almost a mission or a calling, let’s say, tells you a lot without his having to be very specific.

So this edition, “Four Novels of the 1950s,” has books that came out from 1951 to 1959. Why these four books? I think of the four, the last one, “The Galton Case,” is often considered either a key turning point or maybe the greatest of all of Macdonald’s novels. But why are these four, of the 18 or so Archer novels he wrote, why pull out these specifically?

 Well, given the framework of the volume, I think these are especially good ones, and I’ll try to say why they’re special.

“The Way Some People Die,” that was the third Archer novel, and although I love and admire every single book of the Archer saga, I think by the third book he had come into his own early mature style if you will. He had shaken off some of the more obvious trappings of his influences, Hammett and Chandler. He had found a way to put his own stamp on this genre and I think it’s an excellent book. It’s perhaps the best of his more traditional hard-boiled novels. It has a gangster character in there that very much, I think, resembles Mickey Cohen, who was a well-known personality out here. When I was growing up he was in the papers all the time. He was a public figure, as it were. A colorful character, supposedly, for a mobster. It’s a fine portrait that goes a little bit beneath the surface, and certainly an alternative portrait than the one that was presented in the newspapers.

There’s also, I think, a sort of cameo sketch of Dashiell Hammett. If I’m not mistaken, one of the cohorts of the mobster is intended to be an affectionate, rueful portrait of Hammett, who’s mentioned as the thin man, somebody who looked tubercular. I think I’m on to something. Macdonald would have a lot of alternate portraits in his books; of himself, of his daughter, of other people he knew. I think these were like there-but-for-fortune sketches.

So often there are two young men, for instance, or even boys, who represent extremes of his imagining: "What if I had taken this path when I was this age, or a little younger?" Or, "What if my daughter had gone this way? What if she had gone this other way?" I think that this slight sketch of this minor mobster does have some connection to Hammett. There are a lot of Hammett references in several of the other books that are perhaps a little more explicit, but Hammett himself always included self-portraits in his own fiction. Beginning with the first page of “The Maltese Falcon,” the description of Spade is a very close description of Hammett’s own face. Lots of the short stories, you can see skinny guys lounging around who I think are meant, and the sort of foppish author in “The Dain Curse” is an amusing caricature of the author. So I think that this was an influence of Hammett on Macdonald’s fiction, this device. He admired and emulated several Hammett techniques.

Then “The Barbarous Coast” takes place at the edge of the movie world, I think.

Yes, I think you could call this Macdonald’s Hollywood novel, although lots of the books have significant Hollywood content. But this involves a movie studio and a movie producer. I think it draws physically on the Republic Pictures lot in the San Fernando Valley, where Ken and Maggie Millar did some work on syndicated TV shows. So the physical layout and this prop warehouse that he describes, the guard at the gate who remembered everybody’s name, I think this is physically based on Republic Studios, which became Revue, which was owned by MCA, but initially it was a lot of B movies, classy B movies, Westerns and Noir films and so on were made at Republic.

The producer who’s featured in that book is somewhat based, certainly physically based, on Darryl F. Zanuck. Certainly not biographically, or any of those details, but Ken and Maggie went to a party at Zanuck’s Palm Springs place in 1950, I believe. They were invited by Maggie’s publisher, Bennett Cerf, who was visiting Santa Barbara. They went to this party, which Ken described at length in letters that he wrote in the time. All kinds of people were there; Moss Hart, and movie people, stage people. In a letter to Blanche Knopf, he said, “Lew Archer was all eyes and ears.” He paid very close attention and I think eavesdropped a lot. George Jessel was there, comes to mind. This made its way into a few short stories and then significantly into “The Barbarous Coast.”

“The Doomsters” is one that I think Macdonald himself considered a turning point or a breakthrough. How did that move his craft forward, if it indeed did?

Oh indeed it did. “The Doomsters” was written in the wake, or after some awful incidents that occurred in Santa Barbara in ’56. Macdonald’s daughter, Linda, their only child, was involved in an automobile accident in which a youngster was killed. It was a hit-and-run accident and she was found responsible for this and it was a huge story and scandal in Santa Barbara. Throughout the state I remember hearing people talk about it when I was a youngster at the time. There were a lot of accidents and reckless driving in Santa Barbara by teenagers at that time, and this was sort of the culminating horror, although there were other fatal accidents. In the wake of this, Linda was placed on probation for, I think it was nine years, and the family history and [the] probation report file were printed almost verbatim in the newspapers in Santa Barbara. It was a dreadful experience for the family. They moved to Northern California for a year and she went to college at UC Davis. Well, first she graduated from high school in the Bay Area, and then she went to college.

Meanwhile, her family was living in Northern California for a year and Ken entered psychoanalysis and probed his own mental landscape and history. Learned a lot, admitted a lot, and covered a lot, took copious notes, and his fiction changed significantly. You could say this was the beginning of the real mature phase of his work. He always would put whatever he learned, whatever he observed right into his books. So Lew Archer is discovering things through the particular case that he’s exploring. He comes to a more sophisticated and grown-up vision of good and evil, let’s say, right and wrong, culpability and illness, and psychological realism, maturity, let’s say.

So that leads us to “The Galton Case,” which a lot of us think of as being, if not the greatest Macdonald book, at least a kind of middle-period masterpiece, the way we think of “Highway 61” or “Rubber Soul” or “Aftermath.” Is it the great or one of the great Macdonald books? Does it show something new in his work?

Yes, and it is one of the great ones. I think “Rubber Soul” is a good analogy. “The Galton Case,” I think you could say maybe is his first really mature book in his mature style, with his inimitable themes and beauty of expression.

It draws on his personal history in a major way, in a way that he had not really done before. It’s an imaginative reconstruction of his own life in a much more explicit and elaborate way than he’d attempted. I think he was conscious of trying to do this, reaching for more and achieving it. I mention those “there but for fortune” caricatures, and I think he did this in a major way and in a very interesting way. He gives you the “what about this young man’s road versus what about this young man’s road?” And then he sort of combines them in an interesting DNA twist. He thought this was a fulcrum for the rest of his work. He thought the whole rest of his oeuvre turned on “The Galton Case.”

As you say, a lot of people name it as their favorite or one of their favorite Archer books. It’s certainly one of my favorites, although I just love all the books that follow, that golden period in the ’60s. I think this opens the gates. When he goes through the gates of the Galton estate, he’s entering the major phase of his fiction.

Can we hope that if this volume is successful that some of those 60s books will be reissued as well?

I can say, I have permission to say, that there will be two more volumes of Macdonald books, which is a happy piece of news.

Great. And you’re still figuring out which ones?

Well, even if we had named them or selected them, I think I would be asked to keep those confidential if only to stimulate interest, speculation, so on.

About “The Galton Case,” let me tell you, Warren Zevon told me that that book had special meaning to him. He was a great admirer of Macdonald’s work and met him and knew him a little bit and had dedicated an album to him. Zevon said that “The Galton Case” was special to him particularly because Zevon said he had a grandmother who was that sort of matriarchal influence and domineering presence in his family, similar to the Galton matriarch. There was a family portrait of, I think, a deceased uncle of Warren’s, who was this golden-haired prince, who died too young, and Warren felt that he was supposed to become this person, in the sense of becoming the family hero, and emulate and live out the glorious future that had been denied to this person who died too young. He did say that, and there is a portrait in “The Galton Case” similar to what he was describing.

Macdonald readers have particular books that have special meaning for them, and it’s an example I think of how much people find to identify with in Macdonald and how he tapped into these kinds of universal but also specific family experiences and histories that people relate to very subjectively. They give his books special meaning for readers.

One thing that I think makes Macdonald’s work different from the previous crime writers was this emphasis on psychology. Tell us a little about how that Freud, Jung, et cetera shaped the way these novels were written and conceived.

When Macdonald was quite young, he was a teenager when he very seriously began exploring psychology and good and evil and right and wrong. He wanted to fashion a personal moral code and a way to live in the world without causing harm. He was aware of his own potential for violence, for wrongdoing. He was a bit of a delinquent in his teens; he got into some trouble and he got out of it with the encouragement and help of some good teachers and people in this town that he lived in in Ontario. But he very seriously studied philosophy on his own, in addition to reading a lot of crime fiction and a lot of mainstream fiction and literature and poetry and everything in the library.

He read Kierkegaard and the pre-Socratic philosophers, and when they became available and known to him, he read early psychiatric texts and Freud, as you say, and I’m sure he read Karen Horney and a lot of the classic writers. Schopenhauer, philosophers, everybody, starting in high school and then through college and university, and as a graduate student, and then later in life I’m sure. Then he went into analysis and he read spiritual texts and St. Augustine, Albert Schweitzer and Will Durant and “The History of Philosophy,” in addition, as I say, to poetry, from epic poetry to contemporary poetry.

But as far as morality and the ghost of your question, which is hovering somewhere on the fringes of this sentence, it was important to him. These were life-and-death things. He really didn’t want to hurt anybody and he felt the potential. He wanted to figure out a way to live and the principles to adhere to that would enable him to lead a good life, a decent life, a useful life, and they were tied into notions of the purpose of life and society and civilization. He would go from the specific to the general and back again.

I think there’s also a point at which his detective Archer was more interested in understanding and unraveling the criminal than catching him, in some cases. The idea of interpreting human motivation and interpreting criminal and antisocial behavior seems like a big goal of Archer’s, wouldn’t you say?

He is more of a helper and a healer, and a guardian of his clients and the victims, than a paid professional bodyguard or an abstract sleuth. “The Doomsters,” which we spoke about earlier, contains a very long monologue confession in which someone explores their personal history as part of explaining how they came to become the villain that they did. This is almost like an analytic session in a way, and it was criticized a bit at the time because it was such a departure. At the end of the book, you had this long, autobiographical case history, which was something new, for him and for the genre, I believe. It’s not completely popular, even with people who had admired his work up to that time, and he would continue to do that, although to a much lesser degree. But he was interested in understanding people, not to let them off the hook or to absolve them from culpability, but to understand them on a human level for its own sake as well as anything.

You mentioned poetry. Macdonald studied with Auden in graduate school, he wrote a dissertation on Coleridge. What did he learn from poetry and how did it show up in the Archer novels?

It shows up in his beautiful imagery and all of his prose, really. It also affects the structure of the narrative and just the way one sentence follows another, one paragraph follows another. They’re all integrated beautifully and all the elements of the books, at their best, carry equal weight. I think this reflects his study of at the time what was called the New Criticism, that he studied under Cleanth Brooks, who wrote a very influential book called “The Well-Wrought Urn.” A book which is dedicated to the students at Michigan, the grad students in this particular course that he taught, that was a course that Macdonald was in and his friend Donald Pearce, and that’s the precise course where all these essays and ideas were worked out. It became a very influential text in universities throughout the ’50s, at least, and into the ’60s.

Anyway, the notion that great works, a great poem and other works, are written in such a way that every word even, but every line, every sentence, every little block is integrated into the whole, and everything should have equal weight to create a unified work of art and beauty. So that’s another aspect. Dante figures a lot in Macdonald’s books, there’s a lot of Dante-esque imagery and he was well aware of how Dante would describe things. His imagery would reflect the place that he was describing. He was talking about heaven, it’s full of light, and things are described in a very clear and dazzling way. Purgatory, things are shadowy, and so on. There’s lots of Dante-esque imagery purposely woven throughout Macdonald’s books.

He doesn’t hit you over the head with this stuff, but you can certainly pick up on it, become aware of it, and appreciate and admire it. It becomes part of the artistry. In a way, he’s like a painter, using these words to create these pictures in your mind. The pictures reflect the styles of different painters, if you will. Some scenes are like El Greco, some scenes are like Matisse, Cezanne, and so on. He admired music, all these arts, in a way that influenced his prose.

Speaking of influence, I think of Macdonald as capturing something about postwar California, 50s, 60s, early 70s Southern California specifically. But I think he’s been influential on all kinds of crime and detective writers. Why don’t we close with a little sense of what kind of enduring legacy Macdonald has left for writers on the West Coast and beyond?

I think his influence has been certainly national, and I would say international because people all over the world admired him. He was the first crime fiction writer to be translated into Russian since Hammett. He was translated into Japanese, all the Scandinavian languages. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö -- Maj told me in an email interview that Macdonald was one of their favorite writers. He has an Ibsen-esque quality, because he said, “It all began with Ibsen, he blamed everybody.” And in Macdonald’s books, everybody is culpable to some extent because they’re all connected and they all have some shame or guilt.

This is an aspect of those Scandinavian books that that team wrote, which were revolutionary at the time. One of the amazing things about it was that the detectives were human beings, they were not paragons of virtue or even of people who lived their lives well. Those books have continued to influence all those Scandinavian people who came after; Henning Mankell and [Stieg Larsson's] “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” We’re getting all these books back in translation and it’s just fantastic. He influenced Japanese writers: Murakami said one of the first writers he read was Ross Macdonald, one of the first English books. He said that in something he himself wrote or in an interview. And then his effect is more obvious on people in the genre. James Ellroy dedicated a book to him, for instance.

The people who admire him and were influenced by him in different ways, not necessarily stylistically, although there’s that too, in some of them. But writers who don’t write at all like Macdonald admire and were influenced by him to push farther, try for more, do different things, do their own things. But of course, exploring the psychological terrain and writing grown-up fiction about real people, real experience, his influence I think was vast and I think it continues.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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