From: James R. Winter ( winter_writes@earthlink.net)
Date: 29 Nov 2004

It's no secret Ross MacDonald was copping Chandler in his first five novels. It's also no secret that Ross was sometimes better at it than Chandler. THE MOVING TARGET, THE DROWNING POOL, and THE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE all have a depth seldom matched up to that point. And yet we also know in what direction RM was heading.

THE DOOMSTERS and THE GALTON CASE are considered to be MacDonald's break from the Chandler tradition, but after reading THE IVORY GRIN (aka MARKED FOR MURDER) this weekend, I firmly believe the change began much earlier.

THE IVORY GRIN uses several established cliches. A mysterious woman hires Lew Archer to find a missing servant who's absconded with some jewelry. Add in a missing wealthy heir, the mob, a sleazy competing private eye, and one femme fatale, and you have the basic formula for your average pulp novel. But Ross MacDonald is not your average pulp writer. He takes these standard stock characters, throws them in the blender, and hits frappe to come up with an early prototype of the classic Ross MacDonald novel.

About 50 pages into THE IVORY GRIN, we've gone from finding the missing servant to young black girl on the run in 1950's rural California to the search for a missing son. As with THE MOVING TARGET and THE DROWNING POOL, it's really about family secrets. And now, Lew Archer is starting to detach from the people he's investigating, a rogue element that either brings things into focus or knocks down the house of cards, depending on who you are in the story.

MacDonald's real strength here is characterization. On the surface, this is a so-so detective novel with a stock plot. But you understand what moves and motivates everyone involved. MacDonald is keenly aware of personality types and nails each and every one. Max Heiss, the competing unlicensed PI after nothing more than a fast buck and maybe a quick lay, is especially vivid. This guy's a scum bag, but he has no clue because his entire worldview revolves around the next payoff. It doesn't even occur to him that losing his license should have knocked him out of the game.

THE IVORY GRIN is not the best Lew Archer story, but it's a damn sight better than a lot of contemporary books written. Not quite FAREWELL, MY LOVELY or THE MALTESE FALCON, but very good writing and a peak at how one of the masters evolved.

Tune in tomorrow when I dish on Spillane's VENGEANCE IS MINE (or VIM, if you're into abbreviating it. So far, I'm liking it a lot.)

Jim Winter

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 29 Nov 2004 EST