Black Blood: Ross Macdonald and the Oil Spill

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 books, even the Pacific becomes perturbed. Of all Macdonald’s fictions this is the one most focused on the natural environment—and, for that reason, the one most relevant to the present moment.

The novel starts with Archer flying back from Mexico to Southern California, glancing out the jetliner window. He catches sight of an oil spill in the ocean, “a free-form slick that seemed miles wide and many miles long.” What follows is the most expressive and frequently quoted of all the brilliant similes in Macdonald’s novels: 

An offshore oil platform stood up out of its windward end like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood.

The spill has happened close to a town called Pacific Point. Archer drives there and on the beach encounters a distraught young woman, Laurel Russo, wearing a white shirt and slacks; she wades into the water and picks up a grebe fouled with oil. Her eyes and the bird’s burn with the same anger. Archer and Laurel commiserate together, then separate. After an ugly confrontation between Archer and some oil-company roughnecks, he and Laurel meet again. In the meantime the grebe has died.

From this initial scene everything in the plot follows: Laurel’s rejection of offers of help and her disappearance into the night, the search, the anguish and disarray of her well-heeled, extended family (which owns the oil platform), two murders, Archer’s investigation, and the final suicide of the murderer. The mood of the book is established here too, a mixture of sadness and barely constrained rage — emotions felt in real life by Macdonald, who lived and wrote in Santa Barbara, where he witnessed first-hand the wildfires he later described in The Underground Man, and where, in 1969, an underwater Union Oil well blew out, discharging many thousands of barrels of crude onto the city’s beaches. As Macdonald later commented, “The odor of crude oil reached us like the whiff of a decaying future. It seemed to us that if the spill was to have a meaning, that meaning would have to be created by the men on the scene.” The writer and his wife, the novelist Margaret Millar, went to the scene themselves, participated in surveys of the damage done by the oil, especially to shorebirds, and also joined activist groups, even holding up protest signs at rallies. Macdonald eventually cut his Union Oil credit card in two and sent it to the company president.

When Macdonald started writing Sleeping Beauty (at first called Spill) two or three years after the blow-out, he made the stain of oil run right through the book. One of the murder victims washes ashore from the brown surf as dead and as oil-coated as the grebe. Oil streaks obscure the view from picture windows. Archer orders fish at a restaurant but can’t eat it: it seems to taste of oil. An old man rages at the muck washing up on his beach property, tries to scrape it away with a bulldozer, and dies of a heart attack. The stain spreads and spreads, even into the distant past: one killing turns out to be linked to a fire aboard a naval vessel in World War II. There too petroleum — aviation gas — was spilled, and there too it did terrible damage. Archer eventually traces the murders back to a single culprit and a long-ago act of sexual infidelity, while Macdonald simultaneously traces the crime of the spill back to the greed of the oil company. A local fisherman tells the detective that there’s something the matter with the geologic structures under the water, that they are “all broken up.” He says, “It’s like trying to make a clean hole in a piece of cake and hold water in it. They should never have tried to drill out there.”

All this can’t help but recall the events of last summer, forty-eight miles off the Louisiana marshes, and another crime: eleven workers on the Deepwater Horizon killed in an explosion and fire, and even after plumes of crude are no longer spreading from the blown-out rig, seabirds are still dying, and livelihoods are still at risk up and down the Gulf Coast. It now seems obvious that a deep-water well should never have been drilled at that location without an adequate, tested, in-place, fail-safe mechanism for dealing with a possible rupture; or perhaps never drilled at all. “It’s like trying to make a clean hole in a piece of cake…”

After the Gulf wetlands are cleaned up, if they are cleaned up, it will be time to seek the same clear assessment of wrongdoing that we get from Sleeping Beauty. It will be time to name the culprit, and the process will undoubtedly be satisfying—perhaps dangerously satisfying, if it allows us to offload all the guilt onto British Petroleum or the Minerals Management Service, and not recognize our own share in this catastrophe. Whose fingerprints are on the dagger which stabbed the earth and spilled black blood into the Gulf of Mexico? BP’s and MMS’s, yes, but also mine and yours.

Ross Macdonald’s work can help us acknowledge that larger responsibility. For a detective novelist, he was remarkably uninterested in assigning blame; his alter ego Archer often talks more like a probation officer, psychiatrist, or even defense attorney, than like a cop or judge. “I think blame is one of the things we have to get rid of,” Archer says in The Wycherly Woman (1961). “When children blame their parents for what’s happened to them, or parents blame their children for what they’ve done, it’s part of the problem, and it makes the problem worse. People should take a close look at themselves. Blaming is the opposite of doing that.” Meanwhile the detective’s sharpest scorn is reserved for rigidly censorious types or for those who push their culpability onto others, who are often psychologically damaged. What Archer aims to do is understand, not convict, and he realizes that the understanding has to be of long-term history as played out over a wide territory. The murderers whom he identifies have brought their dark passions into the present from the past, where they themselves were betrayed or corrupted; guilt is a web of relationships and needs; it is sometimes hard to tell the victims from the victimizers.

If we follow Archer’s advice and do take a close look at ourselves and the moral stain now so widely dispersed in our society — the dependence on oil, the tarballs on the beaches, the contaminated shellfish beds, the warming of the climate — what will we see? It might be something like the vision Archer is granted towards the end of Sleeping Beauty.  At first, looking over Los Angeles on a night after an exhausting day, he sees a luminous but enigmatic map: “It was hard to pick up its ever-changing meaning. Its whorls and dots and rectangles of light had to be interpreted, like an abstract painting …” Later, after interrogating yet more witnesses and getting word that Laurel may still be alive, he views the city differently. Archer sees Pacific Point much as we should see our nation today: something comprehensible if we put our minds to it; a testing-ground for our dependence on and our responsibilities to the natural world; a vast, luminous, infinitely connected community stretching “between the mountains and the sea like a living substance with the power to be hurt and to hurt.”