Ross Macdonald
Ross Macdonald; drawing by David Levine

It’s hard for sophisticated people to like something simple without overrating it, as the case of Ross Macdonald shows. Like those of his masters, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald’s “tough” detective stories have been getting considerable attention and praise from serious readers, and, though I’ve read all twenty of the Lew Archer novels, most of them more than once, I’d recommend more caution in judging them. Even an addict can see that they follow a formula, are unevenly written and less than convincing in their efforts at social and psychological commentary. Yet the genre itself still pleases, and if a good and imaginative thriller like Paul Theroux’s The Family Arsenal puts a piece of routine tough stuff like The Blue Hammer in its place as literature, it’s clear that they have something important in common.

Under his real name, Kenneth Millar, Macdonald began in the 1940s as a writer of what now seem embarrassing melodramas about Axis espionage or the adventures of returning service men. The invention of Lew Archer in 1949 led to a better subject, the ironies of contemporary, affluent life in California, an apparently new and free world in which the privileged and the deprived could yet be shown, as Archer’s investigations proved, to have common and appalling roots in the past. But World War II remains the source of trouble in many of the Archer books. The Blue Hammer hinges upon a murder in 1943, when a soldier home on leave kills his half-brother in the Arizona desert and takes over his name, his wife, and his (undeserved) reputation as a promising young artist; and many of the other novels also reach back to that dark time when men and women, dislocated from familiar identities and sound commitments, took the fatal step into error whose consequences have dogged them ever since. I suspect that Macdonald would not be displeased, or surprised, by a comparison to the Greek tragedians on Troy.

Archer himself is a resolutely neutral, even neuter, figure. He lives modestly and alone, seldom has much money, does without extra-professional friends or interests. (He claims to know nothing of arts of letters, for example, though Macdonald, who does know about them, sometimes forgets this.) His personal reticence still permits glimpses of an unsettled childhood on the West Coast, service with the Long Beach police in the Thirties, a stint with Intelligence during the war, a painful divorce. He is modern man reduced almost to pure function, the solving of mysteries, though a moralizing softness quivers within his hard-boiled shell.

You know where you stand with Archer, that is, and if he’s a less interesting character than Chandler’s Marlowe or the various heroes of Hammett, no great loss is incurred; one of the pleasures of the genre is its alluring suggestion that actions matter more than agents, that “why” means less than “how.” An Archer story, properly, subordinates “character” to the details of the problem at hand. Whatever the immediate crime—murder, theft, a missing person—a history of worse crimes lies concealed within it. In The Blue Hammer Archer must work backward from a stolen painting to the disappearance of its painter twenty-five years ago, and behind that event, it gradually emerges, lies a sequence of events which began with an illegitimate birth sometime before 1920. New murders point back to old ones, names are changed to protect the guilty, and a complex but (for Macdonald) surprisingly guessable series of revelations establishes that everyone is everyone else’s parent, child, or sibling.

Macdonald has been shaping this plot into baroque extravagance through a quarter-century of Archer stories. The ingredients are simple if rather Calvinistic: crime is the legacy young and relatively innocent people must accept from the past; money and status are found to be tainted by the acquisitive process; the emergence of true history leaves assumed history in wreckage. A prosperous but sterile culture, for which California will do as an image, discovers its hidden sources. And that discovery, while shattering to the characters, becomes oddly gratifying to the reader. The passions that have created the present are, when revealed, recognizably human in their energies, somehow preferable, for all their wasteful folly, to the dead West Coast reality which Archer, his employers, and his antagonists must now inhabit. The reader can assume, that is, that a seemingly accidental and banal world makes sense, if only the negative sense of moral irony. Whether or not one believes it of California or other places, it’s somehow reassuring to hear that cultural emptiness hasn’t just happened, for no good reason.

Macdonald’s basic plot makes literal the assumption of any mystery story, secular or theological: every crime conceals a history of events which can be reconstructed and understood. Apart from perfunctory questions of “motive,” this history is usually a brief one—a few days, hours, even minutes within which someone unknown did something unpleasant to the victim—and Macdonald’s extension of it into a remote past is rather grand and Miltonic. But otherwise his fictional resources seem limited: his characters are sketchy, their misdeeds uninventive, Archer’s moral sense, inside his toughness, conventional and sedate.


Nor, compared with Chandler’s talent for imagery or Hammett’s for atmosphere, can Macdonald’s writing claim much interest. The Blue Hammer, like most of the later Archer books, begins with a glimpse of western landscape that’s somehow portentous:

I drove up to the house on a private road that widened at the summit into a parking apron. When I got out of my car I could look back over the city and see the towers of the mission and the courthouse half submerged in smog. The channel lay on the other side of the ridge, partly enclosed by its broken girdle of islands.

This quickly attributes to Archer’s clients the privilege that can command private roads and fine vistas, and, like the mountaintop converted to parking space, the smog that impinges on the architecture of divine and human order hints broadly at a larger social malaise. But the third sentence is mere laziness. That “broken girdle” of islands sounds too literary for Archer, who has surely not read “Dover Beach” or “To Marguerite” lately, and a natural fact is asked to mean more than it can—all islands are disconnected, and if the girdle were unbroken the channel would I suppose be a lake.

A glance at the opening of The Family Arsenal shows how much more can be done with words. As it happens, Theroux also begins with an elevated view of an ordinarily smoggy city:

Seated on a cushion at the upstairs window of the tall house, Hood raised the cigarette to the sun and saw that it was half full of the opium mixture. Filling it was pleasurable, like the willful care of delaying for love: to taste confidence. He winked and sighted with it, as if studying violence from afar, to take aim. He had a marksman’s princely squint and the dark furious face of an Apache; but he was only finding his landmarks with the unfinished cigarette.

He moved it slightly to the left and covered a church steeple on the next road. In the slow fire of the late afternoon the tall granite spire had the look of an old dagger. Then to the right, past the far-off bulb of the Post Office Tower, a matchstick in metal; past a row of riverside warehouses the sun had gutted, and more burnt spires, and the dome of St. Paul’s—blue and simple as a bucket at this distance. Drawing the cigarette down he measured a narrow slice of the river between two brick buildings charred by shadow: part of a wharf, the gas works, the power station pouring a muscle of smoke into the sky, a crane poised dangerously like an ember about to snap, housetops shedding flames….

This scene powerfully reflects the observer’s situation: Hood is on the verge of joining the IRA Provos in their campaign against a London he envisions as already burning. But his involvement is as yet only theoretical—the city, like the cigarette, is still unlit. If he’s a marksman taking aim, he relishes the gap between thought and deed, and he’s also represented as a kind of painter, an artist of his own intentions measuring the scene as if the cigarette were a brush, before blocking in his composition.

Expelled from the American consular service in Vietnam for slugging a local politico who’d spoken contemptuously of his own people, Valentine Hood (“tender tough guy,” as it were) brings a dislike of unearned privilege and an instinct for violence to London, where he falls in with petty terrorists—a teenage bomb-maker and his bird, who’s blown up a locker at Euston Station, a well-born older woman, Mayo, who’s stolen a minor Flemish painting to hold for ransom. They all live together in South London, a parody-family which yet has its warmth and affection, while Hood tries to make contact with the Provo inner circle and a political violence he can take more seriously.

Hood is a very rough customer indeed. He beats to death Ron Weech, a petty crook whom he hardly knows, just because the man is a bully and a braggart. Later he booby-traps a cache of stolen arms to get even with some toughs who’ve abused his new girlfriend, Weech’s widow, blowing them up (along with poor Mayo) without a sign of remorse. A conventional thriller couldn’t tolerate his violence, both because it’s so severely amoral and because it’s partly a device of conscious theater, a mimicry of (for example) the tough talk which writers like Macdonald ask us to take straight:


…Mayo lowered her voice. “There’s a problem, Val. They want to talk to you. They think you can help them.”

“I used to think that.”

“Oh, God, don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet!”

“Cold feet,” said Hood, sneering. “Wise up, sister.”

“I knew it. As soon as things started to go your way you’d begin your consul act—the big, cool, noncommital thing.”

“I’ll play it by ear.”

“They’re coming tonight.”

“I might be out tonight.”

“I told them they could count on you.”

“They can count on me tomorrow. I’ve got other plans.”

Lew Archer couldn’t say “Wise up, sister” without blushing, but Theroux uses such clichés to suggest a capacity for put-on and self-mockery that makes Hood seem all the more dangerous.

Hood’s sense of the story he’s part of is ambivalent in other ways as well. Though his professional disgrace and his attraction to terrorism seem to signify a sense of justice, his crimes are clearly nonpolitical, impulsive, gratuitous. The closer he gets to the Provos and their fashionable sympathizers, the more he despises their substitution of ideological play-acting for the efficient violence he yearns for. Theater is in fact the chosen medium of such people as Araba Nightwing, the radical actress whose gift for disguise the IRA exploits but whose own group, the Purple League, is finally reduced to disrupting Equity meetings, and Lady Arrow, the rich, bisexual “collector” of violent people and their emotions, who likes to direct prison theatricals and whose favorite novel is The Princess Casamassima. In making drama political they reduce politics to drama, and even the Provos are only too ready to substitute acting for action.

But, the book coolly suggests, Hood himself can’t wholly avoid apprehending life as art. His favorite book seems to be The Secret Agent, and though the stolen van der Weyden at first strikes him as a dull daub, it comes to fascinate him. He gradually learns how to see it even as he substitutes himself for the man he killed, by befriending, supporting, defending, and finally (in his way) loving Lorna Weech and her graceless child. And he finally recognizes that van der Weyden’s portrait of the artist is a picture of himself in the role he’s taken over from his victim: “He knew the face in the self-portrait now: it was the man he had killed, months ago, and he had become that man.” If this is too fancy, still one admires Theroux for trying to make imaginative use of his materials—the stolen picture in The Blue Hammer is only an item of deductive commerce, a fact Archer has to work with that’s no more interesting in itself than any other of his clues.

Theroux’s occasional overingenuities are hardly noticeable in the midst of a plot no less complex than any of Macdonald’s. The threads of Hood’s experience are as tightly interwoven as contemporary London itself, where everything leads to everything else. All over the city, walls and other public surfaces carry football slogans—CHELSEA FOREVER, SPURS WANK, ARSENAL RULE—but the last of these, Hood learns, is also a private joke of his bomb-maker friend Murf, who scrawls it wherever he goes to celebrate his army’s aspirations to power. (This is more game than political action, and Murf can finally leave the IRA and become Hood’s own man.) The stolen painting turns out to belong to Lady Arrow, but she, far from wanting to ransom it, is delighted that it can figure in a radical plot.

The accountant Ralph Gawber, whose ingrained respect for privacy saves him from violent death, finds his premonitions of national disaster—which he welcomes, now that his own neighborhood has gone Coloured—confirmed by frequent crossed telephone connections that thrust him into other people’s business. Weech’s frequenting of dogtracks points illogically but inescapably to the shabby house in the Isle of Dogs where Hood discovers the ignoble complicity of the Provo chieftain (Mayo’s husband, as it emerges) with Weech’s gang of gunrunners.

This is a nightmare world, where coincidence is never meaningless, where every act, however free in intention, re-creates the anxieties it meant to escape from. Hood is both detective and criminal, faced with harder puzzles than the ones Gawber does in The Times:

Once, when he had acted alone, it had all seemed very simple. His present anxiety was like a fear of crowds, the mob that would sweep him from his own motives. The origin of his doubt was the discovery weeks ago that he had made a passport for that wealthy actress he had taken a dislike to. So they were linked. But there was more: the painting stolen by the rich girl from the titled woman. They were all related! And what of Weech’s arsenal? Was it also part of the family now? He resisted assigning it ownership as he had resisted the complicated sympathy of kinship. Yet it was as if by degrees he was waking to the true size of his family and seeing it as so huge and branched it included the enemy. To harm any of them was to harm a part of himself. A family quarrel: if he cut them he bled.

Like Archer, Hood has to learn who’s related to whom. But Archer doesn’t bleed much when his enemies are cut—they’re not, after all, his enemies but the Law’s, and if he feels sorry for them he can’t doubt that their punishment is just and necessary. Yet Hood the detective lets Hood the criminal get away. He does have to take on a “family” when he’d rather live alone and free like Archer, but he can at least limit his family, if only by rubbing out some of its less congenial members. His sense of a criminal world is aesthetic, not moralistic—it is bound together not by guilt but by connective patterns as mysterious and intriguing as those a painter’s unknowable motives have put into his picture.

Hood in fact ends up like the hero of an older kind of fiction, marked by his experience of a fallen society but heading off toward somewhere else where things may be a little better, with a good woman, a child, and a trusted companion in tow. Poor Archer can only go back to the office and wait for the next call. (In The Blue Hammer Macdonald for once permits him a love affair that looks like continuing after the book ends, but this seems an embarrassing betrayal of the rules.) His work is repeatable, and indeed a major appeal of the Archer stories, like those of Trollope or Scott or the Oz books, is that there are so many of them, and all so alike. But I can’t imagine or wish for another novel about Valentine Hood, who here completes and exhausts his possibilities and will never again be interesting. The Family Arsenal is built out of books like Macdonald’s, but Paul Theroux makes serious literary art out of a minor if durable genre without in the least condescending to his models or subordinating their kind of pleasure to his own.

This Issue

September 30, 1976