My Life In Crime

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Some late McGees tend to be weak, but so what? Start with The Deep Blue Goodby and read them all in order.
John D. MacDonald (1916-86).

The creator of Travis McGee, boat bum and self-styled salvage expert, had an M.B.A. degree from Harvard Business School. I don’t suppose that’s anywhere near as weird as Wallace Stevens working for an insurance company and writing Peter Quince at the Clavier in his spare time, but it’s a far cry from the way Hammett and Himes prepped for their writing careers.

It seems likely that McGee, hero of twenty-two fast-paced novels, will stand as MacDonald’s greatest creation. By the time McGee made his initial appearance in The Deep Blue Goodby in 1964, MacDonald had already published some forty books, all but a handful of them paperback originals. They’re almost all crime novels, and they’re almost all excellent.

The French, connoisseurs of our literary dark side, don’t know from MacDonald, and on reflection I can understand why. For all the ecological foreboding of the McGee books, MacDonald’s vision is not on the surface noir at all. His sensibilities were always Middle American, and his characters approached difficult situations with the problem-solver attitude of an engineer. But there is a darkness to MacDonald, evident in his unparalleled ability to limn a sociopath, present too in that neglected late work One More Sunday . But it is not the knee-jerk darkness of the noir world view but the somehow bleaker darkness of a light that has failed.

Some of the late McGees are weak books, but so what? Start with The Deep Blue Goodby and read them all in order. Of the non-McGees, I have especially fond recollections of The End of the Night and One Monday We Killed Them All . Each in its own quiet way is dark enough to make noir look like a light show.

Ross Macdonald (1915-83).

Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar and wrote his first mystery novels under that name. Then he wrote one book as John Macdonald and five as John Ross Macdonald, finally dropping the “John” to avoid confusion with John D. MacDonald.

He began writing in frank imitation of Hammett and Chandler, and the early books in the Lew Archer series are markedly Chandleresque, with Archer wisecracking briskly in the Philip Marlowe mode.

With The Doomsters in 1958 and The Galton Case a year later, Macdonald came into his own and went on to write a series of books unlike anything before him. Against the background of the Southern California ecosystem in metastasis, Archer bears witness as the mills of God relentlessly exact retribution for long-past sins.

A few years ago my wife and I were in West Africa for three weeks. We had plenty of luxuries, like food and water, but nothing to read, and the only books and magazines available were in French. Then, in our hotel in Lomé, the capital of Togo, I discovered five Lew Archers, second-hand paperbacks that had been badly printed in India. The newsdealer wanted an extortionary ten dollars apiece for them, and I paid it willingly. They sustained us all the way back to JFK.

Of course we had read them all before, some of them two or three times. It didn’t matter. It is one of the singular properties of Ross Macdonald’s fiction that ten minutes after you have turned the last page, every detail of the plot vanishes forever from your mind. I’m sure I could reread those five books right now without much more than the faintest sense of déjà vu.

In a sense the plot of every book is much the same. A character did something reprehensible twenty or thirty or forty years ago—in the war, perhaps, or in Canada. Now things begin to fall apart, and, even as Archer rushes around trying to forestall disaster, the guilty and innocent alike are sucked down into the primordial Freudian ooze.

Wonderful books. Read any of the post-1958 Archers for a start. And don’t throw it away when you’re done. In a few years you’ll be able to read it again for the first time.

Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay, 1905-82, and Manfred B. Lee, 1905-71).

Prohibition must have been a time of great self-discovery. Even as Americans were discovering themselves as hard and tough and cynical, and confirming this discovery in the works of Hammett and Chandler, so were many of us waking up to find ourselves clever, and rejoicing in our mental agility by working crossword puzzles, playing contract bridge, and repeating the Round Table talk of the Algonquin crowd. And by reading intricate deductive mystery novels and trying to figure them out.