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 Amazon.com 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.