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

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 07 Aug 2009

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    Re your question below:

    "Not to beat a dead horse here, Jim, but what constitutes 'better' in your mind? MacDonald wrote the same book over and over. You certainly can't say that about Hammett or Chandler. If you mean that, as a novelist, MacDonald got up at the same time every day and put in a full day's work on his latest rewrite, thus making him a better 'novelist,' perhaps you have an argument. His stories were certainly not better than THE LITTLE SISTER or THE GLASS KEY. He never wrote a story as good as either of those. And THE LITTLE SISTER was one of Chandler's recurring themes."

    First, if you read my post VERY CAREFULLY, you'll see that I am not expressing an opinion. I am QUOTING the expression of an opinion given by New York TIMES mystery critic Anthony Boucher (the man for whom Bouchercon is named, BTW). And the point wasn't that I agreed with him (I don't), but to illustrate, in response to a question raised by Kevin, that Macdonald was being linked with Hammett and Chandler long before pioneering mystery bookstore owner Dilys Winn edited MURDER INK.

    Second, to answer your specific question, to me "better" means I liked it more. As I get older, read more, and increase my knowledge of the craft, I may be able to give specific objective reasons for my opinion that I wouldn't have been able to give at, say, the age of 10, or 14, or 25, but, at the bottom line, it's an entirely subjective, and probably largely visceral, reaction. On the other hand, since I value the opinions of others far less than I value my own opinions (and this is as it should be, since my opinions, on virtually all subjects, are always, invariably, correct, and those who, to their sorrow, disagree with me are always, invariably, incorrect), my subjective, largely visceral reactions to the books I read, the movies I watch, the songs I listen to, etc., are undoubtedly as correct as any other opinions I form.

    Third, I never said, at any point in this thread, that Macdonald was a better novelist than Chandler. What I said, and what I stand by, is that Macdonald was a more consistent writer than Chandler, and a more productive writer than either Chandler or Hammett. Having said that, I think it's clear that Macdonald was for more derivative of Chandler (as, indeed, 90% of PI writers since Chandler are) than, as T pointed out, Chandler was derivative of Hammett.

    Fourth, to beat that poor deceased equine one more time, allowing that Chandler had more raw talent than Macdonald; allowing that Chandler was a better prose stylist, a wittier humorist, and a sharper observer of the human condition; and allowing that Macdonald never wrote anything as good as THE BIG SLEEP, THE LONG GOODBYE, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, or (I'll concede this, though it's not really one of my favorites) THE LITTLE SISTER, he also never wrote anything as disappointing as THE HIGH WINDOW or PLAYBACK. And again, when I say disappointing, I'm talking in a relative sense, judged against the backdrop of Chandler's entire ouvre. THE HIGH WINDOW and PLAYBACK would be entirely praiseworthy coming from just about anyone else. Coming from Chandler, they were a disappointment. And Macdonald consistently wrote about the level of THW and PB.

    Fifth, it's a terrible oversimplification to say that Macdonald "wrote the same book over and over." Certainly there are themes that were repeated. Certainly there are plot devices that were reused. Certainly there was a certain familiarity, a sense of deja vu, that one got when one read an Archer novel, particular those written after THE GALTON CASE. But the level of ingenuity with which he wrung new twists on these old themes and plot devices was really quite remarkable.

    Finally, apropos really of nothing (or at least very little) discussed in this thread, but nevertheless worthy of note, Macdonald's Archer collection, which started out as THE NAME IS ARCHER, which was slightly expanded when it was printed in hardcover as LEW ARCHER - PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR, and, in its most complete form, was recently published as THE ARCHER FILES, is nothing except one of the very best single author collections of private eye short fiction ever published, ranking with Hammett's THE BIG KNOCKOVER and Chandler's THE SIMPLE ART OF MURDER.



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