Analysis of Ross Macdonald’s Novels

Ross Macdonald’s (1915–1983) twenty-four novels fall fairly neatly into three groups: Those in which Lew Archer does not appear form a distinct group, and the Archer series itself, which may be separated into two periods. His first four books, The Dark Tunnel, Trouble Follows Me, Blue City, and The Three Roads, together with two later works, Meet Me at the Morgue and The Ferguson Affair, do not feature Lew Archer. These six novels, especially the first three, are rather typical treatments of wartime espionage or political corruption and are primarily of interest to the extent that they prefigure the concerns of later works: The Three Roads, for example, contains Macdonald’s first explicit use of the Oedipus myth as a plot structure and of California as a setting.

The first six Archer books, The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die, The Ivory Grin, Find a Victim, and The Barbarous Coast, introduce and refine the character of Archer, build the society and geography of California into important thematic elements, and feature increasingly complex plots, with multiple murders and plot lines. Archer still shows traces of the influence of the hard-boiled detectives of Hammett and Chandler (he is named after Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, 1930, but closely patterned after Philip Marlowe), but he also shows marks of the sensitivity and patience, the reliance on understanding and analysis, that separate him from his models. Even in these early books, Archer is more often a questioner than a doer.

MV5BYTM4NDc3NWEtYmRkMC00MzdjLWI5ZTAtMzQ4OWQ2MDczNjgwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDUzOTQ5MjY@._V1_The Doomsters

The next twelve Archer novels constitute Macdonald’s major achievement. Crimes in these books are not usually committed by professional criminals but rather by middle-class people going through emotional crises. They followed a period of personal crisis in Macdonald’s own life, during which he underwent psychotherapy; all these novels deal more or less explicitly with psychological issues. The Doomsters, although begun before his psychoanalysis, presents his first extended treatment of the plot of intrafamilial relations that dominates all the later books. Carl Hallman, a psychologically disturbed young man, appears at Archer’s door after escaping from the state mental hospital. He has been confined there as a murder suspect in the mysterious death of his father. Although he knows himself to be legally innocent, he feels guilty for having quarreled violently with his father on the night of his death. This Oedipal tension between father and son, following the pattern of Sigmund Freud’s famous interpretation, often serves as the mainspring of the plot in Macdonald’s later novels. After hiring Archer to investigate the death, Carl panics and escapes again as Archer is returning him to the hospital. Carl’s brother, Jerry, and sister-in-law, Zinnie, are subsequently murdered under circumstances that appear to incriminate Carl.

As it turns out, the case really began three years earlier, with the apparently accidental drowning of Carl’s mother, Alicia. She had forced Carl’s wife, Mildred, to undergo an abortion at gunpoint at the hands of Dr. Grantland. Mildred hit Alicia over the head with a bottle when she came out of anesthesia and assumed that she had killed her. Dr. Grantland actually killed Alicia and made it look like drowning, but he conceals this fact and uses his power over Mildred, who is becoming psychologically unstable, to persuade her to kill Carl’s father. He has designs on the family’s money, and Mildred is greedy herself. She is also influenced, however, by her hatred of her own father, who deserted her mother, and by her desire to possess Carl entirely, to gain his love for herself by eliminating conflicting familial claims to it. She murders his brother and sister-in-law, his only remaining family, as she increasingly loses touch with sanity. Women are frequently the murderers in Macdonald’s books, and he analyzed the reasons behind this in an interview. He considered that people who have been victims tend to victimize others in turn, and he regarded American society as one that systematically victimizes women. Mildred’s difficult childhood and gunpoint abortion provide a clear illustration of this theme.

The Galton Case

Although the focus on family psychology constituted a clean break with the Hammett and Chandler school as well as with most of his own early work, the next Archer novel, The Galton Case, was of even greater importance for Macdonald’s career. In The Doomsters, the case is rooted in a crime committed three years earlier; in The Galton Case, as in most of the novels to follow, the present crime is rooted deeper in the past, in the preceding generation. This gives Macdonald the means to show the long-term effects of the influence of the family upon each of its members. The elderly Maria Galton hires Archer to trace her son Anthony, who had stolen money from his father after a quarrel (reminiscent of that between Carl Hallman and his father) and run off to the San Francisco area with his pregnant wife, Teddy, twenty-three years before. Archer discovers that Anthony, calling himself John Brown, was murdered not long after his disappearance. He also finds a young man calling himself John Brown, Jr., who claims to be searching for his long-lost father. Events lead Archer to Canada, where he learns that the young man is Theo Fredericks, the son of Nelson Fredericks and his wife. Mrs. Galton’s lawyer, Gordon Sable, has planned Theo’s masquerade as her grandson to acquire her money when she dies. However, a further plot twist reveals that Theo really is Anthony Galton’s son. Fred Nelson had murdered Anthony twenty-three years before for the money he had stolen from his father and had taken Anthony’s wife and son as his own under the name Fredericks.

This summary does not reflect the true complexity of the novel, which ties together a number of other elements, but does bring out the major theme of the son searching for his father, a theme that will recur in later works such as The Far Side of the Dollar, The Instant Enemy, The Goodbye Look, The Underground Man, and The Blue Hammer. As Macdonald explains in his essay “Writing The Galton Case” (1973), this plot is roughly shaped on his own life. His own father left him and his mother when he was three years old. Like Macdonald, John Brown, Jr., was born in California, grew up in Canada, and attended the University of Michigan before returning to California. It is interesting that each man assumed his lost father’s name: Macdonald was Kenneth Millar’s father’s middle name. This transformation of personal family history into fiction seems to have facilitated the breakthrough that led him to write the rest of his novels about varying permutations of the relations between parents and children.

rossmacdonaldspinesThe Zebra-Striped Hearse

The exploration of the relations among three generations of fathers and sons in The Galton Case was followed by examinations of father and daughter relationships in The Wycherly Woman and The Zebra-Striped Hearse. Macdonald always counted the latter among his favorites for its intensity and range. In The Zebra-Striped Hearse, Archer is hired by Mark Blackwell to investigate his daughter Harriet’s fiancé, Burke Damis, with a view to preventing their marriage. The implication is made that Mark sees Damis as a rival for his daughter’s love. Archer discovers that Damis is really Bruce Campion and is suspected of having murdered his wife, Dolly, and another man, Quincy Ralph Simpson. Suspicion shifts to Mark when it is revealed that he is the father of Dolly’s baby and then to Mark’s wife, Isobel, who knew Dolly as a child. Harriet disappears, and Mark confesses to murdering her, Dolly, and Simpson before committing suicide. However, Archer believes that Harriet is still alive and tracks her down in Mexico. She had killed Dolly to clear the way for her marriage to Bruce and had also killed Simpson when he discovered her crime. Underlying her motive for Dolly’s murder, however, is another Freudian pattern. The child of Mark and Dolly is Harriet’s half brother, making Dolly a sort of mother figure and, by extension, making her husband, Bruce, a sort of father figure. Harriet thus symbolically kills her mother and marries her father.

The Chill

The Chill features one of Macdonald’s most complex plots, but at its center is another basic family relationship, this time between a mother and son. Archer is brought into the case by Alex Kincaid, who hires him to find his wife, Dolly, who has disappeared the day after their wedding after a visit from an unknown man. The visitor turns out to have been her father, Thomas McGee, who has just been released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence for the murder of his wife and Dolly’s mother, Constance. Later it is revealed that he had convinced her of his innocence and told her that Constance was having an affair with Roy Bradshaw. To learn more about Roy, Dolly has left Alex to go to work for Roy’s mother, Mrs. Bradshaw, as a driver and companion. Shortly thereafter, she is found, hysterical, at the Bradshaws’, talking about the murder of her college counselor, Helen Haggerty. Helen is soon discovered murdered and the weapon used is found under Dolly’s mattress, though under circumstances that suggest that it may have been planted there. Archer learns from Helen’s mother that she had been deeply affected by a death that occurred twenty years before. Luke Deloney had been killed in a shooting that was ruled accidental on the basis of an investigation that was conducted by Helen’s father, but Helen was convinced that the facts had been covered up. Luke’s widow admits to Archer that there had been a cover-up, that her husband committed suicide. Archer later discovers another connection between the recent death and those of ten and twenty years ago: Roy Bradshaw was the elevator boy at the building in which Luke died.

An investigation of Roy reveals that he has secretly married Laura Sutherland, having recently obtained a divorce from a woman named Letitia Macready. Archer confronts Mrs. Bradshaw with the latter fact (though not the former), and after an initial denial she confirms that twenty years ago Roy had briefly been married to a much older woman. Letitia turns out to have been the sister of Luke’s wife, and it was rumored that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. Letitia apparently died in Europe during World War II, shortly after Luke’s death.

Archer eventually draws a fuller story out of Roy: Luke, who was indeed Letitia’s lover, found her in bed with Roy. There had been a violent struggle, during which Letitia accidentally shot and killed Luke. Roy married her and took her to Europe, later returning with her to America. He had been leading a secret double life ever since, concealing Letitia, now quite old and sick, from all of his friends as well as from the police and, especially, from his possessive mother. During this confession, Archer answers a telephone call and hears Laura, who believes that she is speaking to Roy, tell him that “she” has discovered their secret marriage. Roy attacks Archer at this news and escapes in his car to attempt to intercept the other woman, who had vowed to kill Laura. Roy is killed when Mrs. Bradshaw’s car crashes into his. Archer knows by now that Mrs. Bradshaw is not Roy’s mother, but his first wife: She is Letitia Macready. Roy has acted out the Oedipal drama of the death of a father figure, Letitia’s lover Luke, and the marriage to a mother figure, the older woman who posed as his real mother. (Macdonald develops the obverse of this plot in Black Money, which pairs a young woman with a much older man.) Letitia murdered Constance McGee because Roy had been having an affair with her and murdered Helen Haggerty in the belief that it was she rather than Laura Sutherland whom Roy was currently seeing.

This unraveling of the plot has come a long way from Alex Kincaid’s request that Archer find his wife, but one of the characteristics of Macdonald’s later novels is the way in which seemingly unrelated events and characters come together. The deeper Archer goes into a set of circumstances involving people who know one another, the more connectedness he finds. These novels all have large casts of characters and a series of crimes, often occurring decades apart. After the proper connections are made, however, there is usually only one murderer and one fundamental relationship at the center of the plot. All the disparate elements, past and present, hang together in one piece.

Although Freudian themes continued to dominate Macdonald’s work, he often combined them with elements adapted from other stories from classical mythology or the Bible. The Far Side of the Dollar has been seen as a modern, inverted version of the story of Ulysses and Penelope. Jasper Blevins, the fratricidal murderer of The Instant Enemy, explicitly draws the analogy between his story and that of Cain and Abel. He has also murdered one of his stepfathers, adding the Oedipal masterplot to the biblical plot, and murdered his own wife in one of the series’ most violent books, perhaps reflecting the violence of the wartime period during which the book was written. The complex events of The Goodbye Look are catalyzed by the search for a gold box that is specifically compared to Pandora’s box. Again the myth is combined with the primal story of the parricide, this time committed by a child. All three of these books also repeat the quintessential Macdonald plot of a young man’s search for his missing father.

rossmacdonaldseries_1The Underground Man

The search for the absent father also sets in motion the events of The Underground Man, probably the most admired of Macdonald’s works. This novel, together with his next, Sleeping Beauty, also reflects its author’s abiding concern with conservation. Each novel examines an ecological crime as well as a series of crimes committed against individuals. In Sleeping Beauty, Macdonald uses an offshore oil spill, inspired by the 1967 spill near his home in Santa Barbara, as a symbol of the moral life of the society responsible for it, in particular that of the Lennox family, which runs the oil corporation and is also the locus of the series of murders in the book. In The Underground Man, the disaster of a human-made forest fire serves similar ends. The story begins unexceptionally: Archer is taking a day off at home, feeding the birds in his yard. He strikes up an acquaintance with young Ronny Broadhurst and Ronny’s mother, Jean, who are staying at the home of Archer’s neighbors. The boy’s father, Stanley, disrupts the meeting when he drives up with a young girl, later identified as Sue Crandall, and takes his son to visit Stanley’s mother, Elizabeth Broadhurst. They never pay the planned visit, and when Jean hears that a fire has broken out in that area, she enlists Archer to help her look for them. On the way there, Jean explains that her husband has gradually become obsessed by his search for his father, Leo, who apparently ran away with Ellen Kilpatrick, the wife of a neighbor, Brian, some fifteen years ago. It turns out that Stanley, accompanied by Ronny and Sue, obtained a key from Elizabeth’s gardener, Fritz Snow, and had gone up to her cabin on a mountain nearby. There, Archer finds Stanley, murdered and half-buried. The fire originated from a cigarillo Stanley dropped when he was killed, creating a causal as well as symbolic link between the personal and ecological disasters.

After an investigation that is complex even by Macdonald’s standards, Archer is able to reconstruct the past events that explain those of the present. The seeds of the present crimes are found in the previous generation. Eighteen years ago, Leo Broadhurst impregnated Martha Nickerson, an underage girl. She ran away with Fritz Snow and Al Sweetner in a car they stole from Lester Crandall. The incident was planned by Leo and Martha to provide a scapegoat to assume the paternity of her coming child. When they were tracked down, Al went to jail for three years, Fritz was sentenced to work in a forestry camp for six months, and Martha married Lester Crandall. Three years later, Leo was having an affair with Ellen Kilpatrick. She went to Reno to obtain a divorce from her husband, Brian, and waited there for Leo to join her.

While Ellen was gone, Leo went up to the cabin with Martha and their child, Sue. Brian, who knew about his wife’s affair with Leo and wanted revenge, discovered the renewal of this earlier affair and informed Leo’s wife, Elizabeth. She went up to the mountain cabin and shot her husband, believing that she killed him. Stanley, who had followed his mother that night, was an aural witness to the shooting of his father, as was Susan, also Leo’s child. However, Leo had not been killed by the bullet. He was stabbed to death, as he lay unconscious, by Edna Snow, Fritz’s mother, in revenge for the trouble that Leo and Martha’s affair had caused her son and also as a self-appointed agent of judgment on Leo’s adulteries. She forced Fritz and Al to bury Leo near the cabin. Fifteen years later, on almost the same spot, she murders Stanley, who is on the verge of discovering his father’s body and Edna’s crime. Life moves in a circle as Ronny witnesses Stanley’s death in the same place that Stanley witnessed Leo’s shooting. The connection is reinforced by Sue’s presence at both events.

The Blue Hammer

The last novel Macdonald wrote is The Blue Hammer, and whether he consciously intended it to be the last, it provides in certain ways an appropriate conclusion to the series. It is the first time, apart from a brief interlude in The Goodbye Look, that Archer has a romantic interest. The effects of a lack of love preoccupy all the Archer novels, and Archer recognizes in this book that the same lack has had its effects on him. He has been single since his divorce from his wife, Sue, which took place before the first book begins. In the last book, he meets and soon falls in love with Betty Jo Siddon, a young newspaper reporter.

Macdonald knew that Raymond Chandler was unable to continue the Philip Marlowe novels after marrying off his detective, and perhaps he intended to end his own series similarly. It seems that the genre requires a detective who is himself without personal ties, who is able to and perhaps driven to move freely into and then out of the lives of others. Indeed, the involvement of Betty in the case does create a tension between Archer’s personal and professional interests. Another suggestion that The Blue Hammer may have been intended to be the last of the Archer novels lies in its symmetry with the first, The Moving Target. In the earlier book, Archer kills a man in a struggle in the ocean, the only such occurrence in the eighteen books and an indication of the extent to which the compassionate Archer differs from his more violent predecessors. In the last book, he finds himself in a similar struggle, but this time manages to save his adversary. Archer specifically parallels the two events and feels that he has balanced out his earlier sin, somehow completing a pattern.

The plot of The Blue Hammer is built around the Dostoevskian theme of the double, a theme that Macdonald treated before in The Wycherly Woman, in which Phoebe Wycherly assumes the identity of her murdered mother, and in The Instant Enemy, in which Jasper Blevins takes on the role of his murdered half brother. The motif is developed here in its most elaborate form and combined with the familiar themes of the crimes of the past shaping those of the present and of the son’s search for his true father, forming an appropriate summation of the major themes of MacDonald’s entire Archer series.

Thirty-two years ago, Richard Chantry stole the paintings of his supposed half brother, William Mead, then serving in the Army, and married William’s girlfriend Francine. William murdered Richard when he returned and assumed his identity as Francine’s husband, though he had already married a woman named Sarah and had a son, Fred, by her. Seven years later, Gerard Johnson, a friend of William from the Army, appears at William’s door with Sarah and Fred, threatening to blackmail him. William kills Gerard and then takes his name, in a doubling of the theme of doubleness. He returns to live with Sarah and Fred and remains a recluse for twentyfive years to hide his crimes.

The case begins for Archer when he is called in to locate a painting that has been stolen from Jack Biemeyer. He learns that it was taken by Fred Johnson, who wanted to study it to determine whether it was a recent work by the famous artist Richard Chantry, who had mysteriously vanished twenty-five years before. If genuine, it would establish that the painter was still alive. Fred had seen similar pictures in the Johnson home and had formed the idea that Chantry might be his real father. William steals the painting, which is one of his own works, in a doubling of his earlier theft of his own paintings from Richard. The painting had been sold by Sarah to an art dealer, and William is forced to kill again to prevent the discovery of his true identity and his earlier murders. By the book’s guardedly positive resolution, three generations of men—Fred Johnson; his father, William Mead; and Jack Biemeyer, who turns out to be William’s father—have all come to the admission or recognition of their previously concealed identities and have come to a kind of redemption through their suffering.

Macdonald’s work, in terms of quantity as well as quality, constitutes an unparalleled achievement in the detective genre. The twenty-four novels, particularly the eighteen that feature Lew Archer, form a remarkably coherent body of work both stylistically and thematically. The last twelve Archer books have received especially high critical as well as popular acclaim and have secured Macdonald’s standing as the author of the finest series of detective novels ever written, perhaps the only such series to have bridged the gap between popular and serious literature.

Major Works
Long fiction: The Dark Tunnel, 1944 (as Kenneth Millar; pb. in England as I Die Slowly, 1955); Trouble Follows Me, 1946 (as Millar; pb. in England as Night Train, 1955); Blue City, 1947 (as Millar); The Three Roads, 1948 (as Millar); The Moving Target, 1949 (as John Macdonald; reissued as Harper, 1966); The Drowning Pool, 1950 (as John Ross Macdonald); The Way Some People Die, 1951 (as John Ross Macdonald); The Ivory Grin, 1952 (as John Ross Macdonald; reissued as Marked for Murder, 1953); Meet Me at the Morgue, 1953 (as John Ross Macdonald; pb. in England as Experience with Evil, 1954); Find a Victim, 1954 (as John Ross Macdonald); The Barbarous Coast, 1956; The Doomsters, 1958; The Galton Case, 1959; The Ferguson Affair, 1960; The Wycherly Woman, 1961; The Zebra-Striped Hearse, 1962; The Chill, 1964; The Far Side of the Dollar, 1965; Black Money, 1966; The Instant Enemy, 1968; The Goodbye Look, 1969; The Underground Man, 1971; Sleeping Beauty, 1973; The Blue Hammer, 1976.
Short fiction: The Name Is Archer, 1955 (as John Ross Macdonald); Lew Archer, Private Investigator, 1977; Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries, 2001 (Tom Nolan, editor).
Nonfiction: On Crime Writing, 1973; Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, 1981.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

Categories: Crime Fiction, Literature

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  1. Ross Macdonald (1915-1983) – A Crime is Afoot

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