On the birthday boy who exemplifies one of the most American literary genres—and whose novels will send the best kind of winter chills down your spine.
When I was initially thinking about what to include in this blog’s purview, I went back and forth on whether to include topics that are particularly, deeply personal, authors or texts or events that have captivated my attention and interest at various moments in my life (and still do) but that aren’t necessarily quite as far-reaching in their significance as others on which I’ll focus in this space. But what I have realized, at least as of this point in my thinking, is a combination of two things: everything here is here, first and foremost, because I care deeply about it, so it’s kind of silly to try to parse out which ones I care about for which reasons; and the central reason why I care about these things enough to consider ‘em as topics isn’t just that they make me happy, but that I think they’re meaningful and powerful enough to merit our attention. Which is to say: I love the movie Willow (that’s right, I do), but I’m not going to create an entry on it. But birthday boy Ross MacDonald’s series of hardboiled PI novels? Yes, yes I will.
At one early point in my plans for a dissertation—and I do mean early; I was the kind of high school nerd who was already thinking of dissertation options—I thought about tracing the 20th century evolution of the hardboiled PI novel, from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane to Ross MacDonald, and up to the female authors (Marcia Muller, Sara Paretksy, Sue Grafton) and protagonists who dominated the 80s and 90s in the genre. The character type is one of the most genuinely and meaningfully American in any artistic medium, and so we can certainly identify core elements of our national identity in each time period across those different authors—Hammett’s cynical and bitter PIs in the late 20s and early 30s shifting to Chandler’s more intellectual Phillip Marlowe in the 40s, for example. In the 50s and 60s, Spillane and MacDonald created amazingly contrasting PIs: Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an old-school hard-ass and misogynist, a creature of the masculine 50s, someone who watches a woman strip naked for him, thinks to himself that “she was a real blonde,” and then shoots her dead in cold blood a moment later; while MacDonald’s Lew Archer is a romantic idealist, an echo of the Beats and counter-cultures of these decades, someone who often articulates a cynical perspective aloud but whose narration is consistently lyrical and impassioned, sympathizing with the worst in who and what he finds in the course of his investigations and consistently seeking the best in them (including falling in love multiple times, and never once, to my knowledge, shooting one of them in cold blood).
Archer’s voice and MacDonald’s prose style are consistently pitch-perfect, and make any one of the twenty or so books in the series (which MacDonald published between 1949 and 1976, while publishing a number of other works under other names; MacDonald itself was a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) well worth a read. But in the series’ best novels—and I think the high-water marks are The Chill (1964), The Underground Man (1971), and Sleeping Beauty (1973)—MacDonald also creates rich and layered multi-generational historical mysteries, plots that stretch back decades and involve literally dozens of characters, different families and settings and eras, and a wide range of core social and political issues. The structures of these novels are ridiculously tight and impressive and the payoffs deeply satisfying (let’s just say that The Chill in particular is very aptly named), but this historical depth makes these books a lot more than just pleasure reads; they are American sagas without question, tracing families and relationships and identities and places across much of the 20th century, considering how both one very full and compelling world (that of Southern California) and the diverse and changing nation that it in many ways encapsulates grew and decayed, lived and died, from the end of World War II to the post-Vietnam and -Watergate era.
Some of the authors with whom I was obsessed for a time I look back on and, well, I try not to look back on ‘em; I won’t name names, but one such rhymes with Dom Chancy. But every time I’ve gone back to MacDonald in the two-plus decades since my first encounters, I’ve found new aspects within these texts, new ways in which they can help me understand not only the mysteries of love and relationships and family (as can, say, Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle as well), but also of American identity; there is perhaps no character type more American than the hardboiled PI, and no PI more worth our time and attention than Lew. Final Fireside Reads tomorrow,
PS. You know what to do—nominations for Winter Reads, please!
12/13 Memory Day nominee: Ella Baker, whose mentoring and leadership inspired virtually every Civil Rights activist, and helped change the course of American and world history.
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