RARA-AVIS: Re: Tobias Jones on Ross Macdonald in yesterday's Guardian

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 04 Aug 2009

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    Re your comments below:

    "I've wanted to like Ross MacDonald since my 13th birthday when a friend's mother gave me one of his books knowing that I liked that kind of stuff. I didn't like it then and though I've kept up with his work, I still don't like it."

    On has to wonder why, if you don't like him, you've continued to read him. I like him, but taste is taste, and you're entitled to your own. But are there so few books that ARE to your taste that you have to resort to the occasional Ross Macdonald whenever you really start jonesing for a crime novel?

    "It is no complement to say of Archer, as was said of the 18th century parliamentarian, John Wilkes, that he's so thin when he turns to the side he disappears. Archer has absolutely no range of character at all, no distinguishing traits, no real opinions. As compared to Marlow, his wise cracks are forced and often timed so stupidly you'd have to guess he wants to be beaten to a bloody pulp... which he usually is."

    A character who is reduced to being practically a fly on the wall, the P.I. equivalent of a psycho-analyst, is precisely what Macdonald was going for. You may not like what he did with Archer, but at least give him his props for succeeding at what he was setting out to do.

    "Quantity never makes up for quality. To put that guy on a level with Chandler and Hammett makes me think someone is desperate for a crime fiction triumvirate. Mickey Spillane is a more likely 3rd wheel than Ross MacDonald, and, yes, I am joking. In the realm of what they do, Hammett & Chandler sand together alone."

    If you're going to disagree with me, at least disagree with what I actually said. I never said, or even suggested, that quantity makes up for quality. That's ludicrous on its face. If prolificity was all it took to make one writer superior to another, than James Hadley Chase, with nearly 100 published books to his credit, would be reckoned a better writer than Harper Lee, who only wrote one. Being obviously ridiculous, such a position is, I grant you, easy to refute, but it doesn't happen to be the position I took.

    What I DID say was that Macdonald was consistent, where Chandler was not, and that he was more productive, with nearly 20 Archer novels to Chandler's seven Marlowes.

    That he was more productive is a statistical fact. It does not, in and of itself, make him better than Chandler, or even as good. It does suggest that he took the craft of writing more seriously, or at least worked at it more diligently, but that's speculation.

    What's not speculation is that he was more consistent than Chandler. All his books are high quality pieces of work.

    None, I grant, are as good as Chandler at his best. On the other hand, none are as disappointing as Chandler at his worst (and remember, Chandler at his worst is still far better than most writers could ever hope to be). Macdonald deserves respect, not just because he wrote more books about Archer than Chandler did about Marlowe, but because they were all so good.

    Is Macdonald as accomplished a stylist, as witty a humorist, or as acute an observer of the human condition as Chandler? No.

    Does Macdonald deserve to be the "Holy Spirit" to Hammett's "Father" and Chandler's "Son?" Probably not. If I were to pick a third side of that particular triangle, I might, with my tongue not in my cheek at all, nominate Mickey Spillane, for injecting more sheer emotional charge and page-turning pace into the PI novel than just about anyone else, or Joe Gores, for introducing the "team hero" concept to what was previously a sub-genre of lone wolves (a far more innovative change than, say, merely changing the PI's gender, ethnic background, or sexual orientation; even Hammett's Op works mostly alone), and for being such an accomplished stylist and storyteller in his own right. But Macdonald's pretty well-entrenched in the trinity's third slot, and nothing anyone says here is likely to dislodge him.

    But, though he's not as good as Chandler, and might not deserve that number three position, he is, nonetheless, a great writer, an admirable writer. And to admit that doesn't, in any way, diminish the accomplishments of Hammett or Chandler.



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