Re: RARA-AVIS: Ross Macdonald's influence

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 30 Nov 2004

At 03:46 PM 29/11/2004 -0800, you wrote:
>Hammett and Chandler represented major paradigms in
>the hardboiled genre, and I have no trouble seeing the
>strength of their influence. I see nothing even close
>to that in Ross Macdonald.

A lot of interesting stuff about Macdonald has been written in response to this query, but the question was about influence. In some ways I think this is like talking about popular music post-Sinatra. So much has been influenced that in retrospect it is sometimes to see the originator outside the context of the mob.

In Macdonald's case we can begin with his classical allusions. We're not a group keen on pretentious academic analysis, but I think all of Macdonald's Archers, and other novels, were based upon classic mythology. The author put the behaviour of twentieth century North American criminals into the context of Western Literature and influence, then updated it in Freudian terms. Did Macdonald originate the psychological mystery? I don't know, but I feel safe saying he was present at the birth and rearing.

His viewpoint that the the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons loses a bit in this generalization. Inherently the stories were about children being born into corruption, and being victimized before having the opportunity to recognize their circumstance- a situation that repeats through the generations, back to the origins of western culture. It sets the stage for novels about child abuse, and recalls other books like Motherless Brooklyn to my mind.

Macdonald also equated environmental corruption with individual corruption. In Macdonald's case, he wrote about the effect of oil rigs on the California landscape. In Chinatown it was the water diversion from agricultural Orange County to feed the growth of Los Angeles. Since at RA we focus on written text, it's reasonable that we might miss Macdonald's hand all over Chinatown- the corruption of children, the environment and the PI drawn to and repelled by what he finds, but what do we know about Gittes as a man after the film is finished except that he is a man, a PI, and a fast-talking businessman trying to keep his head above water? The thing that sticks in my mind is that private club that supports the retirement home to register land in its residents' names. Isn't that Macdonald's Coral Club, or whatever, that appears in many of his novels?

I don't know that Ellroy has claimed Macdonald as an influence, though he is well known to regard Macdonald above Chandler. Think of the young boy born into a world of corruption that he cannot comprehend, and I think we have Ellroy's literary quest and Macdonald's influence. Hammet's PI protagonists are tough enough to survive outside a corruption focused on specific characters. Chandler's Marlowe is a romantic, not himself mean. But for Macdonald, the child is born into a culture of corruption and cannot avoid being a part of it.

Another thing, regarding style. Might we say that Macdonald broke noir free of its dependence on the hardboiled style? Not to say that nothing worthwhile was written in the HB style since, but I think of Macdonald's style as more straightforward than self-consciously tough and colloquial, suggesting that after Macdonald we may think of hard boil and noir as different things. I'm not as well read as most of you, so maybe that's why I can't think of this divergence before Macdonald. Anyway, I expect you'll tell me where I'm wrong.

Best Kerry

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 30 Nov 2004 EST