Today on Blogcritics
Home » Serial Killers and Lew Archer

Serial Killers and Lew Archer

Via Maud Newton’s blog, an article by Leonard Cassuto in the Boston Globe that tries to pinpoint the fall of Ross Macdonald. For the uninitiated, Ross Macdonald was a mystery writer whose tales of Lew Archer nestled somewhere in time between Phillip Marlowe and Spenser. He was another icon of the tough, hardboiled guy with a soft spot for distressed damsels and underdogs. Macdonald wrote 18 Archer noves in all, and as Cassuto notes:

In book after book, Lew Archer gently pieces together broken family ties. An Archer novel typically features a labyrinthine plot involving mistaken identities within clans haunted by tragedy. Archer solves murders by uncovering the traumatic memories of adults who had suffered or witnessed misdeeds as children.

When Macdonald died some twenty years ago, he was often considered the greatest American crime novelist since Raymond Chandler and praised as a “lterary artist” and a “major American novelist,” not just some guy writing detective stories. Yet Cassuto poses the question: Unlike Chandler, Macdonald’s star has since slipped. Many of his books are no longer in print, and his reputation “lags” behind those of other writers, such as Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith.

Why? Cassuto posits that “it was the serial killers who did Macdonald in.”

In many respects, Macdonald’s suffering children anticipate today’s generation of fictional serial killers. The Iceman, the debut villain in John Sandford’s popular “Prey” series, grows up neglected by his one living parent, devising cruel games to substitute for his mother’s love. James Ellroy’s Martin Plunkett, sexually abused by his father’s lover, makes a career of murder even as he wonders, “What was having a family like?” Even Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, the embodiment of pure, inscrutable evil, turns out to have been an abused child.Today’s army of fictional serial killers are Macdonald’s child victims grown up — but with all hope for them gone. Nothing can redeem the serial killer. He needn’t even confess; he just has to be killed. He’s a monster in human form.But Ross Macdonald’s murderers are not monsters. Macdonald understood that the acts of grown-up abused kids inevitably raise questions of responsibility. In his interconnected fictional world, everyone shares responsibility for these acts. In “The Blue Hammer” (1976), Macdonald’s last published work, a weary Archer sums it up when he says, “We’re all guilty.”Macdonald’s kind of story — backward-looking, involuted, self-probing — is not the kind people want to read in an age of monsters, when you can blame everything on outside malevolence.

Perhaps there is truth in this, but I’m not quite certain. I mean, if you contrast Archer with say, Andrew Vachss’ Burke (who also spends most of his time dealing with crimes against children), you can see that it isn’t enough to just blame the serial killers. Vachss isn’t afraid to stare into the abyss or the hellish torments often inflicted upon the young. Many critics have also heaped considerable praise upon James Lee Burke’s novels. In his stories of Dave Robicheaux, the Louisiana cop whom calls “easily one of the most complex and compelling protagonists in mystery fiction,” Burke often weaves intricate tales of multi-generational crime and deceit. Robicheaux is usually called upon to piece together how the past impacts the present, or how the sins of the fathers can descend upon the sons. So can the decline in Macdonald’s reputation really be that everyone wants to blame everything on “outside maleveolence” and refuses to internalize the emotional examination?

Perhaps part of it is that Marlowe was first, and its always best to be first. In that regard, Archer sort of drifts into Marlowe’s shadows as just another tough guy P.I. Though they were obviously “men of the world,” both Marlowe and Archer were somewhat detached from the problems surrounding them. The modern protagonist is far more emotionally burdened than Archer, often even emotionally broken. And, like Dave Robicheaux, they’re often intimately involved in the mystery they encounter.

I suppose one might point to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser as an exception to this notion, but Spenser exists in a time bubble, one in which he and his beloved Susan are always say, 50-something (or thereabouts). When Spenser first appeared back in the early 1970s, he was about 40; add thirty years to that and you’ll begin to wonder how he and Hawk still manage to bag the bad guys and the ladies. In general, however, I think that the modern detective often battles many internal problems, be they drugs, depression, alcohol, or a whole host of other things. They may cling to some sort of Chandleresque code of honor, but they are themselves a reflection of the shattered society around them. For some reason Phillip Marlowe can still survive in this world. I’m not so sure Lew Archer can.

That’s not to say that I don’t like the Archer novels, or that I don’t consider Macdonald to be a master of the detective genre. I do, on both counts. However, I’d have to admit that in my eyes Macdonald probably isn’t the best American crime writer since Chandler. He’s certainly one of them, but the field is so crowded now that it’s a real challenge to pick just one. If I did have to do so, though, I think I’d probably opt for James Lee Burke. Burke’s writing is haunting, his characters are so vivid, and his world is both alien and yet as familiar as next door. Like Macdonald, he explores a wide array of themes and subjects, and his stories are sometimes only tangentially “detective” fiction. But Dave Robicheaux is a product of the modern world, and yet he holds true to the type of character Chandler espoused as the detective:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

About Bill Wallo

  • Rodney Welch

    Great thoughts on Ross Macdonald, whose The Galton Case and The Freeze, among others, are masterpieces of their genre. One of the things I love about Macdonald is that he’s so compelling, with some turn of events every page, sometimes every half-page.

    Another point of interest, worth noting given the last few months: Macdonald, whose real name was Ken Millar, was an idol of Warren Zevon’s, as well as one of several pals who helped Zevon kick the bottle. You can read the whole tale here.

    Zevon recalls their meeting:

    “Jesus, I remember that day well,” Zevon says. “I was in such terrible shape. I don’t think I’ve ever felt worse. Ken said a lot of things to me that nobody had ever said before. ‘We writers are overcompensated in this society’ he told me. ‘In this house, at your age, you feel guilty.’ We both got a laugh over our religious backgrounds. And I found myself telling him things that I’d never told anybody. I said I was disillusioned because I thought writing had to be fun. He just looked at me and smiled. I told him I drank to force the fun, to get rid of the anxiety and guilt I’d had all my life. For the first time, everything made a crazy kind of sense to me. Since what I felt guilty about was also destroying me, crime and punishment were taking place simultaneously, so I must have thought I didn’t have anything to worry about. If somebody reprimanded me for my conduct, I could tell them, ‘Don’t fret. I know I’m being bad, but I’m punishing myself for it. I’m taking care of it.’

    “The scariest part about alcoholism — about any addiction, for that matter — is that you credit the booze for all your accomplishments. You could be dying from drink and unable to move anything but one finger, yet still be convinced that, without another shot, that finger was going to stop, too. Ken Millar made me realize that I wrote my songs despite the fact that I was a drunk, not because of it.”

    “What did you think when you opened the door and saw him there?” I ask.

    “It was like a dream come true,” Warren Zevon says. “At the lowest point in my life, the doorbell rang. And there, quite literally, was Lew Archer, on a compassionate mission, come to save my life.”

    Zevon’s masterful LP, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, is dedicated to Ken Millar.

  • %3Ej3yBX%3BgG%3Cta0

    QwcC;SF9enER QLlQ1 D5UK loCGcY1:V Ma=cksW5JbWf yhUCm0_Gm [:<9_dUC =Z^Z`[Smr4 v8>fc:ICdC fh>uLrP`R^? =pa`c e?TnNVXYj lPyZ_s WI]ywl59bgjKETZ GyznWX]iJ3guc q?yS>uEC4wz HEGr4_q4RM]5; 8sqkXh0V>QVQUS IkfacjEYn wQn7Mw0DhX1h4 vVhM1A J1Y0dIFB=3>^qF mFEZ GHtZCOHaPYTkZ3 CM6V[:d>00nG N;mf5LzTe` C:em>U6[\\;fFJg [[]6yit nFdH0JBCTx6c