RARA-AVIS: Macdonald, Hammet, Chandler, Compassion, et al

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 01 Dec 2004

Sweet Jesus!

Did Rara-Avis suddently turn into SFMS? I go away for one day and come back to find EIGHTY-odd Rara-Avis messages in my in-box! Could Ross Macdonald really generate this much controversy? Why do we even need a Ross Macd. month? It looks like we already had one.

And you managed to generate all that correspondence without me? Well, we can't have that.

First, as to Macdonald's influence. Macdonald himself was clearly far more influenced by Chandler than Chandler was by Hammett. Early on you can see Hammett's influence on Chandler in, for example, the two Mallory stories in which Chandler tries to replicate the ultra-objective 3rd person style Hammett had used so well in THE MALTESE FALCON and THE GLASS KEY. By his third story, "Finger Man," essentially the first Marlowe story (though he wasn't called that in its initial publication), Chandler was pretty much going his own way.

Macdonald, on the other hand, followed the Chandler playbook far more slavishly than Chandler did the Hammett playbook, and did it for his whole career.

Macdonald admitted, in the forward to the Archer omnibus ARCHER IN HOLLYWOOD, that Archer was deliberately modeled on Marlowe. And certainly Archer followed what I've called the Marlowe Paradigm in every single respect. In his first book-length appearance, he's a 30-ish, unmarried ex-cop, who operates his own, one-man detective agency out of a large American city and tells his stories in the first person. And, except for getting older (which Marlowe did, too), he continues to follow the paradigm throughout the series.

The two elements regarded as Macdonald's particular contribution to the PI genre, a compassionate hero and mysteries involving screwed-up families with long-buried secrets, both have their roots in Hammett and Chandler, too.

What after all are the Leggetts/Dains in Hammett's THE DAIN CURSE, or the Sternwoods in Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP, if not templates for the dysfunctional families that form the core of so many Archer novels? What motivates the Op's caring for Gabrielle in CURSE or Marlowe's looking out for the Sternwoods long after he's really completed what he was actually hired to do in SLEEP if not compassion?

Macdonald's following the Chandler model seems natural when one considers how much they had in common. Their lives had many parallels. Both raised by single mothers. Both native-born US citizens who were, nevertheless, raised primarily in the British Empire
(Chandler in Ireland and England, and Macdonald in Canada). Both combat veterans of World Wars. And both fascinated by the literary possiblities of American colloquial language upon their return to the US.

Macdonald once said, "Democracy is as much a language as it is a place. If a man has suffered (as we
[Chandler and Macdonald] both had) under a society of privilege, the American vernacular can serve him as a kind of passport to freedom and equality. Marlowe and Archer can go anywhere at least once, and talk to anybody."

Even the development of the Marlowe series parallels the development of the Archer series. Just as Marlowe was called something else in his early appearances in BLACK MASK and DIME DETECTIVE (Carmady and Dalmas), so Archer is called Joe Rogers in his first short story appearance in EQMM, "Find the Woman" (a title that seems to evoke an early Chandler story, "Try the Girl"). And just as Carmady/Dalmas became Marlowe when the stories were collected in THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER, so Rogers became Archer when "Find the Woman" led off THE NAME IS ARCHER and its expanded hard-cover edition, LEW ARCHER - PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR.

If Macdonald was so influenced by Chandler, it follows that everyone who's influenced by Macdonald is simply being influenced by Chandler at one remove.

Still, if Macdonald wasn't as influential as Chandler, he WAS both more consistent and more productive. Chandler wrote seven Marlowe novels and two collections of short stories (one posthumous). Macdonald wrote eighteen Archer novels, five standalone mysteries, and two collections of short stories (one posthumous). And while Chandler occasionally swung and missed (THE HIGH WINDOW is definitely sub-par after THE BIG SLEEP and FAREWELL, MY LOVELY, and his last novel, PLAYBACK, is a major disappointment), there really isn't a clunker in the Archer series. If there's a certain familiarity in the plotlines, there is also an amazingly high level of performance in each individual book. If he was never as good as Chandler at his best, it must also be admitted that he was never as bad as Chandler at his worst.

If we're only going to read one Archer, I'd recommend THE NAME IS ARCHER/LEW ARCHER - P.I., one of the best private eye short story collections ever. If it has to be a novel, why not the first, THE MOVING TARGET, which was the basis for the biggest PI film of the
'60's, HARPER? If it has to be post-GALTON, I'd personally choose THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE, but I've heard that Macdonald himself once said that he regarded BLACK MONEY as his best effort.

Dewey's DRAW THE CURTAIN CLOSE is the first Mac novel, and, in that early effort, tough and heard though he is, he's already displaying the tender heart and concern for children that will mark books like EVERY BET'S A SURE THING, THE MEAN STREETS, and A SAD SONG SINGING. Published in 1947, it does predate THE MOVING TARGET. On the other hand, the Rogers/Archer short story, "Find the Girl," was published in '45 or
'46, so who's to say?

On other subjects:

Chandler's method of developing novels from short stories was markedly different from Hammett's and it's not really fair to compare them. Hammett wrote novels intended for magazine serialization that, by editorial edict, had to be written in such a way that each magazine installment could stand on its own as a short story. This is the method he used for BLOOD MONEY, RED HARVEST, THE DAIN CURSE, and THE GLASS KEY. Only THE MALTESE FALCON was written so that each installment was nothing more than a serial installment. Apparently Cap Shaw was sufficiently impressed that he was willing to let it appear as a regular serial rather than a consecutive series of semi-autonomous short stories.

Chandler, on the other hand, took completely unrelated short stories, and combined and expanded them, rewriting scenes from the original stories extensively, and adding wholly new chapters to help fuse the disparate plotlines. It was a method entirely different from conceiving a novel that, from the start, had to be made up of semi-independent portions, and made for a less episodic structure.

The '50's were an angry era because, after having supposedly won the good fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, we were suddenly confronted by the reality that Stalin and the commies were at least as bad, and probably worse than Hitler and the Nazis. In a relatively short period of time, they'd grabbed up virtually all of Eastern Europe, taken over Chican, stolen our A-bomb secrets, popped a nuke just to show us they could, induced North Korea to invade South Korea, thus involving us in another shooting war, and, most importantly, to a far greater extent than the Nazis were able to, apparently infiltrated all levels of American life up to and including the highest levels of government.

I wasn't around then, but if I'd just spent four or five years fighting a war to defeat totalitarianism and was then confronted with the fact that the threat was still there despite all my efforts, it would make me mad as hell, and I wouldn't want to take it anymore. And, not to nitpick about the use of words
(well, actually that's exactly what I'm doing), it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Daly, at least according to Spillane, didn't sue Spillane. His agent did. Daly, actually flattered by the first fan letter he'd gotten in years, killed the suit and fired his agent.

Okay, now that I've settled everything, you can all calm down.



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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 01 Dec 2004 EST