Illustration: Sometimes I Wonder (On Doing an Evil Deed), 2009 © John Finneran courtesy of the artist
“Three or four miles beyond the end of the pier, a half-dozen oil platforms blazed with lights like leafless Christmas trees. And off to the north, like a menacing West Coast Statue of Liberty, a giant gas flame flared.”
— The Blue Hammer (1976)
THERE ARE MANY REASONS TO READ ROSS MACDONALD'S midcentury crime novels. All are exceptionally well-written, acute and humane in examining the psychology of guilt, and scrupulously observant about Southern California, that land of “the short hairs and the long hairs, the potheads and the acid heads, draft dodgers and dollar chasers, swingers and walking wounded, idiot saints, hard cases, foolish virgins” (so The Instant Enemy puts it in 1968). Still another reason to read Macdonald is his fascination with the region’s natural terrain, which over the course of his career became more and more a part of his dark stories. From some initial criminal act, Macdonald’s plots typically spread out widely in space and time, until they cover a whole landscape with a stain of wrongdoing or betrayal, and California itself comes to seem the victim.
In The Underground Man (1971), for example, Santa Ana winds spread brush fires around a coastal city, accelerating the plot and making Macdonald’s private-eye hero Lew Archer do his investigating in the midst of threatened hillside subdivisions, with the air moving in spurts behind him like hot animal breath. Archer passes an old avocado grove in the path of the fire and sees the hanging fruits as grenades waiting to be detonated. The natural world, however traduced, can also be healing. At the end of The Galton Case (1959), after a long night of recriminations ending in a suicide, we hear of dawn lightening the sky, of birds beginning to sing, of detective and suspects listening to the birdsong together. The novel’s last line is “Even the dead man seemed to be listening.”
Macdonald wrote about flat farming country, deserts, mountains, and the imperturbable Pacific, the pure blue of which often seems a rebuke to the shabbiness of dealings on land, or to the arrogance of the rich Californians who live in canyons with a haze “like a thin smoke from slowly burning money” (The Moving Target, 1949) and dine on “prime ribs of unicorn … or breast of phoenix under glass” (The Ferguson Affair, 1960). But in Sleeping Beauty (1973), the next to last of his book...read more