Re: RARA-AVIS: Ross Macdonald's influence

From: Richard Moore (
Date: 29 Nov 2004

--- In, "James R. Winter"
<winter_writes@e...> wrote:
> 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
> MacDonald.

I agree that Ross MacDonald's influence is quite apparent in many of the popular detective series of the past quarter century. Parker certainly was a careful student.

> 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
> is hard to do, considering that I'm comparing him to Chandler,
> 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
> FALCON and THE THIN MAN notwithstanding.)

I don't believe that THE MALTESE FALCON or THE THIN MAN were (to use the term A.E. van Vogt coined) "fix-up" novels formed by cobbling together short stories. FALCON was a five-part serial that ran in Black Mask from September 1929 to January 1930 and THIN MAN appeared, slightly condensed in Redbook's December 1933 issue. If you had said that Chandler was better at cobbling together novels from short stories and compared Chandler's best "fix-ups" to Hammett's RED HARVEST and THE DAIN CURSE, you might have a point.
   But Chandler's
> characterizations, aside from Marlowe, were often flat or rather
> dimensional, whereas MacDonald clearly understood something too
> 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
> hands down for simply doing more with an average story. The
> difference is in the characters, imho.
> Jim Winter

I'm not certain that I would chose to rank MacDonald and Chandler on the basis of their more mediocre efforts. I'm more of a best vs. best ranker myself.

You favor MacDonald on the basis of his better skill handling "antagonists, protagonists, and minor Characters" and say that Chandler's characterizations "aside from Marlowe" were flat and two-dimensional.

For the sake of argument, granting every point in the above paragraph about MacDonald's better antagonists, protagonists, etc., I am intrigued that your praise does not include the character Lew Archer. For myself, I've always found Lew Archer a bit, well, two- dimensional, certainly hazy in comparison to the various fully-drawn protagonists and antagonists.

Richard Moore

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