Nostalgia City Mysteries

Mark S. Bacon

Ross Macdonald taught us how to do it


Private investigator Lew Archer walks into the mob boss’s house. “It looked as if the decorator had been influenced by the Fun House at a carnival.” Then Archer says something to irritate the boss.

“His fresh skin turned a shade darker, but he held his anger. He had an actor’s dignity, controlled by some idea of his own importance. His face and body had an evil swollen look as if they had grown stout on rotten meat.”

These are the words of Ross Macdonald from his Lew Archer series, “the finest series of detective Ross-Macdonald---Way-Peoplenovels ever written by an American,” according to William Goldman in The New York Times Book Review.

I’m a Ross Macdonald beginner, having only read a sampling of his work—and I’m hooked. It’s easy to rave about his exquisite way with words. He pounded a typewriter the way Heifetz played the violin, Reggie Jackson swung a bat. He belongs in the company with the best American detective writers, and some would say, with the best American writers period.

People who write crime, thriller, suspense and mystery fiction today owe Macdonald a debt for raising the level of the genre and making it respectable—and a top seller. Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe trod the mean streets of San Francisco and LA popularizing the hardboiled yarn and the PI’s code of conduct. Macdonld brought it into the modern era. He began with Chandleresque cases later expanding Archer’s scope to include psychological and emotional angles, stories with more depth. Biographer Tom Nolan said, “Macdonald set a new literary standard for his genre.”

He makes it sound easy. His writing is so engaging and he creates such images with his metaphorical language, you roll through the pages admiring skill while you get caught up with his characters and settings.

My main purpose here was not to canonize Macdonald, but simply to provide a few samples. The quotes from the beginning of this article, and below, are early Macdonald.   They come from The Way Some People Die, Macdonald’s third Archer novel. He wrote 18.   Here are more samples. Mystery writers take note.

“Beyond a row of dwarf palms the sea was snoring and complaining like a drunk in a doorway.”

Archer makes his way down the hallway of a downtown flophouse: “The brown numbered doors stood like upended coffins on each side, bathed in the static red flames of the fire-exit bulbs that dotted the ceiling at intervals.”

In the flophouse, Archer confronts a villainous drug dealer who has abused a teenage girl. He grips the man by the collar. “He tried to spit in my face. The bubbly white saliva ran down his chin. I tightened the pressure, carefully. He invited death, like a soft and loathsome insect.”

A mobster points a shotgun at Archer. “…its double muzzle watching me like a pair of binoculars.”

Archer wanders into a claustrophobic, underground bar in San Francisco. “It was a large square room with rounded corners and a ceiling so low you could feel the weight of the city over it.”

The book is filled lines like these. These examples were not carefully selected but plucked from the pages like you would grab a few pistachios from a bowl, without favoring one or the other. I’m looking forward to many happy hours with Lew Archer.

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