Re: RARA-AVIS: What does Nolan say about Black Money?

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 08 Jan 2005

At 01:44 PM 07/01/2005 -0500, you wrote:
>Nolan's bio is always recommended on the list, but I've never picked it
>up. I will if I see it, though. Mr. Schooley was especially enthusiastic
>about it.

I too was distracted by the strange index listing. Nolan doesn't say that much about Black Money directly, except that it was written, published, won critical praise and financial success. The last was a significant point. Harper came out in 1966, and as the most recently published book, Black Money was the first to benefit from the exposure and popularity of the movie. Previously, Macdonald's books were more critically than financially rewarding. Even as Harper was in production, Nolan says Bantam had plans to let some of Macdonald's titles go out of print. Knopf essentially stood by Macdonald for 20 years before the dollars really began to roll. Hard to imagine that happening now.

Though Nolan doesn't provide much direct criticism about the Macdonald's books, reading the biography reveals many of Macdonald's resources. The Millers lived in Santa Barbara, a small college town where they were members of a private club on the Pacific beach. Well, that's our setting for Black Money. I wondered how many of the characters in Black Money were based upon members of the Coral Casino Beach Club. Most were the type of judgmental, privileged, empty lives that Nolan suggests characterized the upper strata of the Millers' community.

Miller's youth was split between school, the jukes and pool halls of Kitchener, Ontario and his maternal grandmother's puritan household. Many of those street-level joints, Nolan suggests, sported gambling machines and back-room betting. Though the phrase hasn't come up in the book, Black Money is laundered cash- the cleaned up and "legitimized" flow from the proceeds of crime, in this case the skim off Las Vegas casino profits by organized crime. Macdonald suggests that the volumes are so large in North America that they infiltrate and corrupt all levels of society. Gamblers are hooked, leading to the breakdown of businesses and families, but even more important, the monies wash into businesses and through banks, over the transoms of ambitious politicians and justice officials, corrupting the values of those exposed to it, and almost everybody is exposed to it one way or another. Vegas has since gone legit as a family playground now, meaning youth is exposed to it while forming their own values and brand loyalties. Yet somehow money laundering is an activity that still has currency in today's economy.

Miller grew up without his father, and Black Money, like so many of Macdonald's books, revolves around the failure to nurture children in North America. Black Money is more than a case of an individual kid gone wrong due to lack of a father figure. Macdonald reveals a number of ways in which children are used by adults for their own advantage. This includes the kids' own parents, and Macdonald is very good at describing how individuals and societies distance themselves from their knowledge of this activity.

Miller was a failed academic. Despite recommendations from acclaimed Coleridge experts, he couldn't get his Ph.D. thesis on Coleridge published, Nolan suggests, because several university presses were reluctant to acknowledge serious work produced by a mystery writer. The notion of a crime-writing/literary dichotomy still exists, but I'd suggest that with pop-lit courses in so many institutions it can hardly be taken seriously anymore. But clearly Macdonald lands some vengeful blows on academia in Black Money, when he suggests that sexual liaisons between students and professors were not uncommon. And the scenes revolving around the "Five Questions for a Frenchman" are hilarious, with the tough Archer increasingly wishing he'd not brought the subject up as Tappinger gradually takes the notion seriously and composes the test. Then, because his client is with him, Archer reluctantly asks Martel the questions, though he know's they're stupid. Still, it's not all fun and games. At the end of the novel, Macdonald uses the list to suggest that Tappinger may have subconsciously revealed himself in creating the list.

Humour may not appear in Black Money as much as in other crime-writers' works, but it is there, when Archer gives his first name as "Fallen" to a drunken woman who insists on calling him "Arch", or, under the appraising eye of a hospital clerk he asks how much she thinks he's worth. "Dead of alive?" she says. There's more, but what's interesting about so much of Macdonald's writing are the multiple layers of meaning. That Archer asks to be addressed as "Fallen" implies more than his aching feet. The "dead or alive" crack gives pause to anyone engaged in the dangerous business of life. "That stopped me," Archer tells the reader. And the "Five Questions", as well as providing humour, and as well as alluding to Tappinger's motivations, are a whip against pop-psychology quizzes that appear in everything from consumer magazines to job-evaluations. And everything, ultimately provides insight into complex systems for the betrayal of children.

I find much in Macdonald's work that is prescient, and that includes the notion of strong female characters dependent upon weak men. I don't think that has quite played its way through the entrails and out of society yet. Last I looked, men still had a lock on most senior executive positions. Bill Clinton got the top job, not Hillary. Not yet.

But I'd suggest that Macdonald influenced his times, and times since. He builds on Hammet and Chandler, but in somewhat different times. Hammet and Chandler peaked between the wars, the brief period when books were a popular medium. Their stories suggested merit and skill in the hardscrabble lives average people. The Working Joe wasn't necessarily stupid or undeserving, but still needed to be tough to get along. Spade had street smarts and understood how things worked. Marlow seemed to have achieved a level of self-education. Both used their brains and brawn in equal measure. Macdonald writes after WWII, when television is quickly replacing reading as a mass medium for entertainment, and the market splits between the brawn-backed judgments of Mike Hammer and the psychological inquiries of Lew Archer. In Black Money, Archer doesn't even pack a gun until the very end of the book. He muscles no one. He doesn't blackmail or threaten information from anyone. As Bill Crider points out, Archer's investigation is more like the "talking cure" of psychoanalysis. People volunteer information because they know they're morally uncertain, even as they repeatedly say otherwise. They have a need to confess. As the dick hired by a sympathetic member of their inner circle, a community rife with gossip and guilt, Archer becomes the community priest.

One of the interesting implications is what this does to the notion of hard boiled. Archer is tough enough. He's certainly world-weary and cynical in his narrative asides to the reader. He's not afraid to go up against his opponents without a gun. Of course, most of them are middle-class wimps, but there's the Vegas casino front man, who Archer thinks might have killed at least one of the book's victims. Archer doesn't run from him. I think we can agree that Archer's tough enough. The question though, is what's colloquial during the mid-sixties when television has spent 20 years stamping out regional dialects and gotten everyone talking like mid-Atlantic evening newscasters? Once in a while a character will slide into bad grammar, but that's about it, unless you include Martel's French. Macdonald's writing isn't colloquial in the way that Ellroy's is, but Ellroy latches onto the lingo of jazz musicians or the scandal-sheet yellow press for its stylistic flourish. This more jargon, the language of determined subcultures, not the dialects of average people.

Still, I don't think style is Macdonald's strong suit. Some of his earliest stories attempted tough colloquialisms and came off as forced, in my opinion. And while Black Money contains some lovely lines (the one with the moon looking like a fingerprint on the windowpane), some other descriptions are laboured and there's a tendency here and there for unnecessary adjectives, even when the point has been made in the progress of a scene. Some of this comes from the use of Archer, the flawed human being and investigator, as narrator. He says he's not the type of guy most people would enjoy for company, and he's not. He's judgemental as hell, especially at the beginning of the book, and they aren't judgments that most people would agree with. So I'd agree with those who felt the characterization of the surfer/life-guard wasn't quite up to Macdonald's intentions. It's hard to see why Archer is so upset with his youthful stupidity.

It's not that style and character development are consistently bad. They're often quite good. It's just that occasionally they're not quite what they could or should be. The characters are usually strong enough for the stories, but Archer himself aside, few are memorable in the long run. Macdonald's greatest strength, I'd suggest, is his description and development of the relationships between people and how they necessarily work out. Macdonald is a master of plot.

Ironically, at the beginning of Black Money, the Tennis Club is somewhat similar to Christie's drawing rooms, almost a parody of social life. But Archer peels away the layers, finding at first the customary infidelities and debaucheries with their attendant hypocrisies, then the deeper secrets resulting from obsessive behaviours, followed by their attendant criminalities and murders, finally leading to the darkest secret of them all: the failure of society to support it's children's dreams and hopes for the future, a corruption that ripples through the shifting sands of life like an atomic bomb set off in the Nevada dessert.

Noir? I'd say so.

Best Kerry

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