Home / Film Noir on Paper: Ross Macdonald Mysteries

Film Noir on Paper: Ross Macdonald Mysteries

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Ross Macdonald’s novels are the cinema noir of crime writing. I grew up on these tough guys with their strength and character, and a sense of loyalty and, somewhere, honesty. They talk tough in that way that Humphrey Bogart could bring off in a movie. Here, for instance, Lew Archer has a conversation with a “motor court” owner (who is later killed, of course) just after the book starts with Archer finding a dying truck driver where else but the side of the road.

…”In my line of business I have a speaking acquaintance with most of the jerks in Las Cruces. But I don’t hobnob with Mexican truck-drivers.”
Archer: “Good for you. Any idea who shot him?’
“That’s kind of a silly question.”
“You could still answer it.”
“What gives you the right to ask questions, fellow?”
“Go on calling me fellow. It sends me.”
“You didn’t mention your name.”
“That’s right. I didn’t.”

Obviously we know what kind of men we are dealing with. Both of them: the sarcastic would-be tough guy and Lew Archer, the hard-boiled detective. The surprise to me is, first, the quality of the language:

“I left the sidewalk, waded through dew-dense grass to the side of the next house, and stepped over a low fieldstone wall into Kerrigan’s yard. The terraced lawn was splashed with light from the windows. There was a rumor of voices inside the house…” And much later “…A few lights gleamed at their feet like bright droppings from the sky…”

I love the “rumor of voices.”

Then there is the difference in the world when there were “motor courts” instead of motel chains, alike at every interchange of the interstate of sameness. There is really a mystery with a number of characters and a number of possibilities. The world now has jaded itself into the serial killer mode or slasher frenzy, not just in crime stories, but as a reflection of the world of teenage gang killings, school shootings, and mass terrorism.

Ross Macdonald confronts another time and he does it with commendable beatings given and taken and, here and there, real feelings about the characters. They are not just killers nor evil people, but complex characters caught up in events that overload their circuits.

Is this great literature? Hardly. But it is great fun. It is the stuff that I grew up on for those lazy Saturdays and nights too hot to sleep, or just too boring when there was a mystery with which to be curled up. Guaranteed excitement. No bad taste of cannibalism and dismembered bodies described in tedious detail, no nightmares. The noir was a comforting friend you could rely on. A basically good, tough guy like Lew Archer.

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About hfdratch

  • Didn’t “film noir” start out on paper? The Bogart films and others in that genre were mostly based on the hard-boiled detective novels that had already been popular for decades when they were filmed, if I recall correctly.

    So the phrase “film noir on paper” strikes me as odd, like someone saying Errol Flynn swashbuckler movies ripped off George Lucas.

  • Dr. Pat. The problem is the world has changed over 50 years. It is closer to a “revolution of rising expectations”. Macdonald has some fights and 3 murders in
    Find A Victim. Today the murder book set needs a series of bodies, something supernatural, or something grotesque. I would say it is more Macdonald’s roadside hamburger joint to Hannibal’s MacDonald’s factory produced sandwiches.

    Phillip Winn is undoubtedly right. They would be good read aloud or seen in a 1940’s or 50’s film noir movie. This one wasn’t but its cousins were.

    I might have read it aloud but my wife grabbed it first and gobbled it up.

  • These books sound like they’d would be even better read aloud. True?

  • You imply a great question here, man – why do we “jade ourselves” with such dark stuff as cannibalism, serial killers, and slasher movies? Is Macdonald just the marijuana to Hannibal‘s crack-cocaine?