In 1949 Raymond Chandler wrote a letter to a literary critic. Chandler was a lonely man who drank too much. His letters were long, rambling, and indiscreet. Among the industry gossip and small talk in this one were his opinions about a new kid on the block. They weren’t positive.
At the time, Chandler was the best known detective writer in the anglophone world. This British-American mongrel had set the template for the modern private eye in fiction: a cynical, bruised-heart romantic who uses the wrong methods to do the right thing in a futile battle against a world in which corruption grows like mould.
“Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
The note perfect evocations of 1940’s Los Angeles in Chandler’s novels were the icing on the cake. He was such a towering presence in the genre that other writers had to try hard not to sound like him. Some didn’t bother. Earlier in 1949 Ross Macdonald (born Kenneth Millar in California but raised in Canada) published his first novel about detective Lew Archer. The Moving Target would be followed by another 17 books about Archer, each more popular than the last. Archer was clearly and unapologetically based on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.
Unfortunately Chandler wasn’t a fan. In his 1949 letter (to thriller reviewer James Sandoe) he gave his opinion on The Moving Target. With both barrels.
“A car is ‘acned with rust’, not spotted [… ] “The seconds piled up precariously like a tower of poker chips”, etc. The simile that does not quite come off because it doesn’t understand what the purpose of the simile is […] When you say ‘spotted with rust’ (or pitted, and I’d almost but not quite go for ‘pimpled’) you convey at once a simple visual image. But when you say ‘acned with rust’ the attention of the reader is instantly jerked away from the thing described to the pose of the writer. This is of course a very simple example of the stylistic misuse of language, and I think that certain writers are under a compulsion to write in recherche phrases as a compensation for a lack of some kind of natural animal emotion. They feel nothing, they are literary eunuchs, and therefore they fall back on an oblique terminology to prove their distinction.”
But Chandler had a point. Macdonald’s imagery is often so artificial and pleased with its own cleverness that reading it is like driving over a literary speed bump. It bounces you out of your seat and out of the book. It takes real effort to suspend disbelief again.
That’s one of Macdonald’s better bits of imagery. Presumably it means the character’s ears looked like pink butterflies because they were large and translucent. But the rest of him is larval – so Macdonald is trying to tell us he was … what? Physically undeveloped? Morally undeveloped? The spitting image of a maggot? And you’re out of the story, wondering what it all means.
By contrast, Raymond Chandler had a visual genius. He could make you see everything he wrote about, even when writing in the abstract.
Macdonald never wrote anything that good. It was just words on a page to him. There are great authors who never saw writing as anything more than just typing sentences in a pleasing order (Evelyn Waugh for example, and Simon Raven in a lower tier) but Macdonald, despite or because of his Phd in English Literature, didn’t have the touch.
What Macdonald did have was a talent for compulsively driving plots.
Plots and Scenes
Chandler famously regarded plot as a near irrelevance, simply a vehicle for scenes and writing. Some claim he was reacting against the neat clockwork of the Agatha Christie-style cosy murder mystery so popular in the interwar years, but that may be special pleading. Chandler simply didn’t have much interest in plot. His books are cannibalised from the short stories he wrote for pulp magazines before the war and rarely make too much sense.
The plots got better over Chandler’s career (The Long Goodbye is pretty damn good if you have a high tolerance for coincidence) thanks to the years spent writing scripts in Hollywood where easy-to-follow narrative was king. But the better they got, the less pleasure Chandler took in writing them. He preferred character, description, the flash of insight that brings it all to life. He loved language.
“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” Raymond Chandler, Farewell My Lovely
Macdonald loved plot. From his earliest books, he was aware of his debt to Chandler and tried to carve his own path. His emphasis on the logical unfolding of events, of a plot that not only made sense when stripped out of the book and examined but also demonstrated a moral theme – that was Macdonald distancing himself from his literary master.
His early books are competent detective thrillers. Then, in the late 1950s, Macdonald started psychotherapy. He learned a lot about himself, particularly his relationship with his family. With 1958’s The Doomsters, his plots become baroquely Freudian. The trigger for the crime is now a deep, dark family secret that finally crawls out into the light of day and brings chaos with it. Abandoned children, mothers who are really wives, wives who are really mothers, rediscovered fathers. Lew Archer has become more therapist than detective.
Chandler died in 1959 from alcoholism. Three years later a volume of his correspondence was published which contained the remarks about The Moving Target. Macdonald read it and was deeply upset. From then on he became increasingly dismissive of Chandler, minimising his influence and criticising his books.
“I can still read Chandler with (diminishing) pleasure but will never write about him, being unwilling to subject myself to the painful discipline of being fair to him when he, for his part, subjected himself on my behalf to no moral discipline at all.”
And also from that point, Macdonald’s books would never deviate from the same Freudian plot of family dysfunction. He obsessively worked it over, again and again. It was as if Macdonald was trying to perfect his plot template, to show the world he was not just better at the one aspect of writing that Chandler could never conquer, but its master.
When it worked, it worked well. Black Money is a very good novel. But the repetition would not go unnoticed by a later generation of crime and thriller writers.
‘He must have terrific carbon paper,’ said Donald Westlake.
Macdonald died in 1983, his last years a blur of Alzheimer’s disease. These days critics describe Chandler and Macdonald, along with Dashiell Hammett, as the “Holy Trinity” of hard-boiled detective writers.
It’s hard to believe either man would be happy with the description.
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