I’ll start by calling your attention to Michael Kreyling’s 2005 work The Novels of Ross Macdonald.
It was reading Professor Kreyling in the fall of 2013 that prompted me to start reassembling a collection of Macdonald. Once upon a time I had a complete collection, and in a great flurry of dispossessing myself of works that I thought I would not be returning to again I had gotten rid of all of them (after all, I had read each two or three times). Now I see that was a mistake. And now I am embarking on a major project of reading him again. He repays additional readings.
In the latter half of the 1960s I had started to sense that something exciting was happening. Three remarkable novels (Black Money, The Instant Enemy, and The Goodbye Look) seemed to be breaking through the genre into something else. Fine works, all of them. Kreyling views Black Money as being a conscious engagement with The Great Gatsby, and reading it again I concur. All of them deal with California as some kind of end point to the American experience, where events that began elsewhere and in the past explode into the present of the books. Elsewhere I have ventured that thought that the Archer novels read in order show how the Unites States moved from the end of the Second World War to the Age of Nixon. Family of course is central. (I could throw in the word Freudian here, but don’t let that frighten you off.) But even these had not prepared me for the accomplishment of The Underground Man in 1971.
Eudora Welty’s review of the novel appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and an important paragraph from it is found in Macdonald’s obituary in the Times. The review is reprinted in full in Welty’s The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays & Reviews. For me, The Underground Man is the high point of detective fiction and Macdonald’s fiction and one of the great American novels. For me everything he ever tried to do came together in this novel with something approaching perfection. Plot, character, style, theme, image, imagination.
Then come Sleeping Beauty (1973) and The Blue Hammer (1976). His last two novels. Macdonald died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 1983. He was only sixty-seven years old.
These two novels, I think, manage to achieve greatness in spite of being flawed. When I first read them (and I snatched them off the bookstore shelves as soon as they appeared), I sensed that something was wrong. Good, even great, as they were, both lacked the perfection of The Underground Man. According to Kreyling, at least one friend of Macdonald’s detects signs of his Alzheimer’s in The Blue Hammer. That does seem to be the case, certainly when one reads of the difficulties that Macdonald had while writing it. But I sense just a bit of it as early as Sleeping Beauty.
The principal flaw I see in Sleeping Beauty involves the beginning of the novel. Flying home from another case, Lew Archer looks down on an oil spill in the ocean. Macdonald gives us epic and panoramic views of this disaster along with attitude and opinion before we get into story specifics. Usually Macdonald starts small and lets the macro event be discovered along with the case. In The Underground Man Archer wakes up, a rattle of leaves, a hot wind blowing, scrub jays, a yellow sky. (“The edges of the sky had a yellowish tinge like cheap paper darkening in the sunlight.”) Only later do we get to the raging forest fire. Reading the later novel I have a sense that Macdonald cared so deeply about the environmental issues that he led off with them instead of letting them emerge from the tale.
I believe Sleeping Beauty would have been better served had the opening moment been Archer’s discovering the oil-covered grebe being pulled from the water by a woman in a white shirt and slacks. The black oil, the damaged bird, the woman in white, all vivid, all important to the story. Then, perhaps, Archer might reflect on what he saw flying in. As it is, the opening is beautifully written, but I think it digs a hole that at least this reader had to climb out of. But it is well worth the climb.
In The Blue Hammer my problem is with the ending. The situation is one of the most complicated that Archer has come across and perhaps it was simply too complicated to avoid a level of summary at the end that Macdonald had been moving away from. At several times in the work I also got the feeling that Macdonald was reiterating in order to keep his own mind around the central complicated mess.
In neither case do the problems I see unduly damage the work. But I did notice them. And I believe that had Macdonald been still been able to write at the level of The Underground Man, these problems, assuming that they are problems, would have been rectified. In neither case should you avoid these late novels. They do have their own greatness.
Macdonald is not the only novelist whose last has been, perhaps, flawed by the onset on Alzheimer’s. Famously, Iris Murdoch, someone else I have loved, with her final novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, in 1995. I recall the reviews being negative: small gaps in chronology, signs of authorial carelessness, repetition. I think they’d just been waiting to stomp on Ms. Murdoch. And then shortly her condition became known. No, her condition does not negate critical objectivity. But it must, I think, be taken into consideration in the assessment of the body of work, and with sorrow, not with glee. For my part, I’m glad that we had one more Murdoch novel, even if it was less perfect than some that came before.
I do believe that it was a struggle for Macdonald to complete The Blue Hammer. My sense, from all I have read, is that he realized that he could not write another. Archer is looking back on his own life in this one, more than ever, with reflective sadness. There is a sense of summation, of completion, in this work. Archer even falls in love, deeply, I think, and perhaps Macdonald was providing for at least the possibility of a happy ending for the private detective who had stood him in such good stead over the years. That too adds to the wonder of the work for me.
This is not by any stretch a critical essay about Macdonald. I’ll let you go to Freyling for that (and he does a fine job). This is more of a love letter, and they have their place as well. I think you’ll find that Freyling loves him as well. As did Eudora Welty. Really. She and Macdonald loved each other in later life. That seems to be known. So far as I know, it is still not a given how intimate that love might have become.
I once heard Ms. Welty say that for Southern writers, William Faulkner was like the Midnight Express roaring through, and all you could do was get out of its way. In detective fiction, Ross Macdonald holds that spot. All writers since seem to be in his shadow, whether they emulate or react against.
Which reminds me: isn’t Absalom, Absalom! the perfect Ross Macdonald plot?
Another writer of what seemed initially to be mere genre fiction (science fiction and fantasy, if you don’t know) who started a good decade before Macdonald was Theodore Sturgeon. I got to know his work when I was a teenager, back in the early 1940s. In my impressionable years I came across this line in his short story “The World Well Lost”: “Why must we love where the lightning strikes, and not where we choose?” I guess there is something of that in my early attraction to Ross Macdonald. But over time I began to understand more why it was that I loved him.
If you don’t know him, give him a try. You night fall in love with him as well. My suggestion: start before The Underground Man and work up to it. And when you’ve finished with the two after that, read Kreyling’s book.