Friday, June 1, 2012

Ross Macdonald: The Way Few People Write

Every so often, I read an author who is so good that my emotions move from the joy of the experience to despair that I will never be able to write this well. Ross Macdonald is so evocative, smart, and emotional in his delivery of a private eye story that I feel perhaps I shouldn't even try to write a detective novel. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald were often called the "holy trinity" of American crime writers. Their respective stories did resemble each other in that they often stripped bare the veneer of Southern California perfection revealing savage and broken people. You might say they all wrote "Sunshine Noir". The characters and stories were always in a cloud of immorality, amorality, and the occasional bit of hope. But that hope often came in the form of a character who would be snuffed out by the cruel and inevitable wind of the dark world in which the stories existed. There is much to like about all three writers and they definitely possess their own voices. But after having read only two Ross Macdonald books, I think he is my favorite.

"The Way Some People Die" is not just one of the best titles of all time, it is also one of the best hard-boiled stories I've ever read. Written and set in post-war Southern California (with one trip to San Francisco), it is the kind of tale that sweeps the reader away into a world that is expertly drawn and populated with characters who you feel you've known all along. Starting as a missing person mystery, it quickly becomes about drugs, murder, betrayal, and the insidious and common nature of selfishness in almost everybody. There is something profound and quotable on nearly any page. Descriptions are so good, they may be worth more than the proverbial Thousand Word Picture. But it is quick and forceful. He doesn't waste any words. And just as he knocks you off your feet in setting the stage, he delivers dialogue that is so fresh, you feel like you are in the room. The voices are clearly delineated and the characters are not vague types or cyphers. I have more than fifteen Macdonald books that I have not yet read. According to many critics, "The Way Some People Die" is a good example of his early work but not generally regarded as one of the absolute best. Wow. I can't imagine reading something better right now.