Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Ross Macdonald: The Way Some People Die



       Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels can, I think, be divided into three groups.  The first is made up of the books from The Moving Target to The Barbarous Coast.  In these he’s still working for the most part in a kind of imitation of the Raymond Chandler-Black Mask style. The second group starts with The Galton Case and runs through to The Blue Hammer.  In these Macdonald is essentially operating in a genre of his own invention, locking in a formula in The Galton Case which he henceforth never veers from.  The principles of this formula include the following tenets:  1) one single culprit always commits all the murders (which by the way is also the case in most of the earlier group, though not always); 2) the source of the present trouble is always a murder that occurred many years back; and 3) Freudian psychology.  The third group is the single novel The Doomsters, in which the Chandler-Philip Marlowe influence is severed for good.  The Doomsters establishes Archer’s unique voice and cadence but the string of killings only goes back two years and doesn’t really contain strong Freudian overtones. 
          Two of the best in the entire series come from the first, early group; chronologically these appeared back to back and were the third and fourth of the eighteen, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin.  Probably the masterpiece of the whole canon is The Chill because it is an effortless application of the mature formula - and the solution comes on the very last page, with no room for a breath.  In some of the later books though, in particular The Blue Hammer, we can practically feel Macdonald sweating at the typewriter, trying to make everything work.  And yet even the magnificence of The Chill depends on Freudianism for effect in a way The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin are wholly free of.  You may be asking, so what?
          In his book Appropriating Shakespeare the scholar Brian Vickers offers a critique of Freud and his ideas that is so devastating, such an utter and thorough act of intellectual demolition, that it’s almost embarrassing to read.  Of course, there, Vickers is concerned with Freudian literary critics who are trying to co-opt the Bard in order to push their own ideology.  In reading an author such as Macdonald, however, no argument is necessary to show that he has Freudian intentions.  It’s perfectly obvious – no one would have to twist and turn, or offer questionable analysis, to make the point.  


So we must keep in mind that in his later Archer novels Macdonald is working within the framework of a psychological belief system that, to say the least, not everyone accepts.  After all, there are who knows how many differing schools of psychology.  I’m not arguing for or against Freudian ideas, as I have no strong opinion one way or the other.  I’m simply pointing out that a complete and unquestioning commitment to them is dangerous.  Try to read a bit of Eugene O’Neill today and see how badly dated some of it seems. 
          The inability to resist a sexual come on from a very attractive person – which is the way some people die - is often a misguided ego swing.  We may think, “Wow, if he/she finds me worthy of a fling I must be the bee’s knees!”  This is the mistake Joe Tarantine – who, like Roy Fablon in Black Money, is a pivotal character we never actually meet – makes in marrying Galley Lawrence in The Way Some People Die.  She is a deadly femme fatale; unknown to him, he is being set up by Galley, who has a career in nursing, and her patient, Herman Speed.  Speed happens to be a drug dealer whom Tarantine has double crossed.  He and Galley plot Tarantine’s demise together.
          In his milestone book A Cinema of Loneliness film scholar Robert Kolker writes, of a character in one of Arthur Penn’s films, that for her “sexuality is a thing of loathing and a weapon.”  This applies to Galley Lawrence exactly, as we shall see.
          We can already sense this much – this kind of plot is very far away from what Macdonald usually worked with in his later novels.  Greed and money are the motivators here, not deep dark family issues.  A whodunit of this kind, of necessity, doesn’t allow the reader to have much sympathy for all the double- and triple- crossers, which is, again, in significant counterpoint to Macdonald’s later stuff, where he is often seeking not necessarily condemnation, but rather an understanding, of some of his murderous characters.  This novel is much, much colder.
          Something else worth observing is that Archer solves this case contingently, by accident, when the coroner McCutcheon makes a throwaway remark: “If it weren’t a patent impossibility, I’d say he might have frozen to death.”  (p. 224.  I’m using the Vintage/Black Lizard, 2007 edition.)  This is very rare for Macdonald – most of the other Archer cases are solved by logic, with a neat and almost mathematical precision.  I like this element of happenstance– it feels much more realistic than a perfect literary jigsaw puzzle. It reminds us of when we hear of a true life mass murderer found out and brought to justice by way of a traffic ticket. 
          In his great book on Macdonald’s novels Peter Wolfe wrote: “As in most of the early Archers, the private drama is more intelligently perceived and freshly described than the public one; nor are the two dramas threaded together as neatly as in the mature work.”  Wolfe is casting this truth as a negative, which, in my view, it isn’t.  Loose ends and unanswered questions are not an impediment in a story of this type.  On the contrary, when everything is tied together in a neat little bundle in the last few pages I would venture that a forced air of contrived artificiality overtakes the novel.  

          In writing about this novel I assume the reader has read it through at least once.
I offer in what follows some quick discussion about the first six chapters and then a summary wrap up. 


          Archer begins the case by driving up to the home of Mrs. Samuel Lawrence.  Upon our second reading of the novel we know that this meeting isn’t innocent, and that there is already so much going on behind the scenes, off the first time reader’s radar - the web of deceit and the layers of lies almost send us reeling.  What seems to be a prodigal child case quickly escalates into a ride through several hells.
           The mother – hopelessly ignorant, hopelessly delusional – is also concealing things from Archer (which, again, the reader does not yet realize).  Let’s explore the background events that have already taken place behind the scenes, outside the scope of the novel’s pages, as Archer meets Mrs. Lawrence:
1.     Galley has already killed Tarantine.
2.     Speed has already conned Marjorie into marriage.
3.     Dalling, impersonating a cop, has convinced Mrs. Lawrence to hire Archer.

            This is the hornet’s nest that Archer steps into.  The opening chapter is
full of Marlowe-type snarkiness, Macdonald/Archer’s deep knowledge of this part of California, sociological commentary, and the usual top of the line similes.  The first paragraph is a masterpiece of introduction.  Everything in the chapter is organized around the idea that Mrs. Lawrence clings to the past and cannot adjust to the present.  Some examples:
          “The street was the kind that people had once been proud to live on, but in the last few years it had lost its claim to pride.”
          “The third story had Gothic-looking towers at each corner, fake battlements that time had taken and made ridiculous.”
          “The contrast with the traffic I’d been fighting gave me a queer feeling, as if I’d stepped backwards in time, or out of it entirely.”
          “My sensation of stepping into the past was getting too strong fro comfort.”
          “The tea tasted like a clear dark dripping from the past.”
          This chapter serves two other important functions – it establishes Galley’s relationship to Speed and introduces Galley – the single most dominant character in any of Macdonald’s Archer tales:
          “Pretty was hardly the word.  With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets.”


         


        In the second chapter Archer drives to Pacific Point Hospital for a meeting with Audrey Graham, Galley’s last roommate, a character whom we will not see again.  She is recognizable as a type – the shy, modest, plain girl who is jealous of Galley’s overpowering sexuality.  Because of this she feels compelled to paint her as a whore.  I remember a quote from The Art of Seduction by Robert Greene: “…her power comes from her effect on men, and she must learn to accept, or ignore, the envy of other women.”  Audrey also enforces Galley’s connection to Herman Speed. 

          Here, as well, something that in the first chapter was displayed but not identified is explicitly made reference to – sociology.  The town “rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory.”
          In the third chapter the richness of the novel begins to drip out slowly, like a leaky faucet.  It starts with a scene that recurs quite often in the Archer novels – a bird flies overhead, mocking Archer, and “laughs” at him.  Mr. Raisch says of himself “I’m a product of individual enterprise.”  He is another version of Tony, the saloon owner in The Drowning Pool –an immigrant who is living the American Dream, a totally self made, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps- kind of guy.  Interestingly, there is no mention of a wife or children for him, past or present.  Like Audrey Graham, he will not show up again; also like her, and like everybody, he cannot forget Galley Lawrence.  He recounts a visit he got from some toughs looking for Galley and/or Joe Tarantine, toughs that we will come to realize are Blaney and Dowzer. 




          
          Chapter Four, which takes place at the Point Arena, continues the outright sociological commentary: “A social researcher with a good nose could have written a Ph.D. thesis about that air.”  Archer goes there looking for Speed, whom, he’s heard, is a wrestling promoter.  The janitor there, a young black kid named Simmie, is an aspiring boxer hitting a bag; nearby a black woman watches: “Her black arms rested on the top of the fence and her chin was laid on her arms.  Her great dark eyes had swallowed the rest of her face, and looked as if they were ready to swallow the boy.”  She talks to Archer, giving him valuable information about Tarantine and his mother while Simmie implores her to shut up.  As the episode ends Archer muses that the kid will see only barely moderate success as a fighter and return to “a ghetto street corner with the brains scrambled in his skull.”  This incident serves as an important setup for a later scene.
          The next chapter shows Macdonald at his masterful best – with a short cameo by a woman who appears for such a brief time that she is not even named.  After yet more sociological commentary, this time about Mrs. Tarantine’s neighborhood, Archer knocks on her door to find no one home.  He notices a neighbor in the next yard hanging clothes.  “She took a couple of clothes pins out of her mouth and called.”  What a piece of writing, what a display of powers of observation!  And then: “She disposed of the sheets in her arms and pushed the graying hair back from her face.”  Ditto!
          This lady offers that Mrs. Tarantine is at the hospital visiting her son who was badly beaten at the dock the other night.  She says he was “mugged”.  At this point Archer doesn’t know she means Mario Tarantine, not Joe – indeed, he isn’t even aware that Joe has a brother.
          At the hospital the imagery and portrayals are, again, sensational:
“The door of 204 was standing open.  Inside the room a huge old woman in a black and red dotted dress stood with her back to me so that I couldn’t see the occupant of the bed.”  She leaves; Mario Tarantine is in the bed under “a helmet of white bandage”.  His face is badly smashed; he clarifies quite a few things for the detective and off handedly reveals what will eventually be critical information – that he lives on his boat, the Aztec Queen.
        In the sixth chapter the severity of the situation falls upon Archer, and us as well – violence, in the form of Tarantine’s destroyed apartment, intrudes forcefully on the consciousness.  After eating dinner Archer narrates “I had the kind of excitement, more prophetic than tea-leaves (a reference to the tea-leaves in Mrs. Lawrence’s home earlier) that lifts you when anything may happen and probably will.”  The prophecy doesn’t take long to become true – he finds the apartment annihilated.  It’s best to let a reader absorb Macdonald’s prose about the condition of the abode in the original, without commentary or intervention.  I say this because these passages can cause us to put the book down and contemplate.  What was in the apartment that was so valuable, that would cause someone to go to this length of destruction? 
          Perhaps the point is to make us reflect on the intensity, the fury, of certain passions and desires.  What type of person allows their desires to be expressed and manifested through such acts of rage?  And what about the person who apparently has the desired object – Tarantine?  What does the fact that his apartment looks like Hurricane Katrina went through it say about his level of desperation? 
          But Archer doesn’t have much time for wondrous contemplation – someone hiding in the apartment – the professional thug, Blaney – overtakes him at gunpoint.  Within the space of two pages (p. 33-34) the following sentences appear about the man:
          “His face had a coffin look…”
          “His temples were clean and hollowed out like a death’s head…”
          “We went down in the upended casket of an elevator…”
          We see the point!



         Peter Wolfe – I still his book is the reference work of choice – has a lot of problems with this novel.  For example, he criticizes (p. 124) the decision to have Archer’s double cross of Dowzer happen “off camera”, and he also writes (p. 127) of “Ross Macdonald’s inability to portray a convincing professional criminal”.  I don’t know, but I think the following his massively convincing: “He went on eating for a while, to remind me of his importance in the world.”  I also happen to think the portrayals of Jane Starr Hammond and Joshua Severn are excellent! 
          Overall, while I understand that few hardcore Macdonald readers and critics will agree with the high place I think this novel deserves in the canon, I’d like to stand by that assessment.  There are flaws, yes, but they are of the kind that occur when the author is pushing himself, stretching, rather than comfortably laying back on cruise control.  




          

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