Re: RARA-AVIS: Ross Macdonald's influence

From: James R. Winter (
Date: 29 Nov 2004

Oh, Ross's fingerprints are most definitely all over the PI novel. If you look at the early Spensers, that might be Marlowe's sense of humor spewing forth from Spenser's mouth, but the depth of characterization and the humanization of the PI protagonist is mostly MacDonald.

Of the three - Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald - I would say Chandler may be my favorite, but MacDonald was clearly the better writer. Even his early stories, which owe more to Chandler than anything else, MacDonald was much better at plot and characterization. I also get a better sense of place from him (which is hard to do, considering that I'm comparing him to Chandler, whose stories are all about place.) Moreover, I think MacDonald handled the long form better.

Chandler, though, was the original hardboiled stylist. But his strength was more in the short form, and his best novels (save, I think, THE LONG GOODBYE*) came from combining short stories, something he did much better than Hammett in many cases (THE MALTESE FALCON and THE THIN MAN notwithstanding.) But Chandler's characterizations, aside from Marlowe, were often flat or rather two dimensional, whereas MacDonald clearly understood something too many writers don't: Everyone's the star of their own drama. Where MacDonald has the most impact is in how he handles antagonists, protagonists, and minor characters. That's something that's often lacking in even the better PI series (or the post-CATSKILL EAGLE Spensers).

Having just read one of each writer's more mediocre efforts back to back, I'd have to say that MacDonald wins both in influence and skill hands down for simply doing more with an average story. The difference is in the characters, imho.

When I read Lehane or Pelecanos or Laura Lippman, I don't think, "Gee, this sounds like Chandler." I think they sound more like MacDonald. Too bad his star has faded in recent years. But where Chandler's influence is obvious and unmistakable (I'm quite sure Marlowe would have worn sneakers if created 40 years later.), MacDonald's is subtle and often unnoticed. But it makes all the difference in the world.

Jim Winter

*Someone brought up THE LITTLE SISTER the other day, and someone else said it was plotted from scratch. Is this true?

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