The Detective As Truth-Seeker

A Ross MacDonald novel is more than a thriller.


A great many people who have never read a detective story believe they know well enough what they are like. They are merely puzzles told in the form of a story; the reader's goal is simply to figure out "whodunit" before the sleuth does. The author helps him by planting "clues" along the reader's path, and the reader must find those clues.

But the clues are cunningly disguised and surrounded by red herrings that go off like harmless land mines under the reader's feet. For instance, someone is found stabbed to death and there is no weapon in sight, only a mysterious wet spot around the fatal wound (it is later revealed that he was stabbed with an icicle that subsequently melted). Or the sleuth finds the body of Sir Egbert Mollycoddle, beaten to death, but not a single clue…unless that leg of mutton on the floor is one (he later proves, with a few facts and a chain of syllogisms, that the mutton was frozen at the time of the murder and was in fact the blunt instrument that changed the shape of the late Egbert's head).

The criminals in such stories kill from motives that would never drive anyone we know to an act of violence: for instance, the desire to prove that one is more intelligent than the police (big deal). The author tells his story with a frivolous, Hitchcockian amusement, suggesting that his attitude is really the same as his imaginary killer's—murder, the ultimate act of cruelty, is treated as a pretext for a pointless display of cleverness.


Of course, this is not the sort of story Ross MacDonald writes. He is by all accounts the best living exponent of a tradition that rejected this sort of mystery writing about 60 years ago. That tradition, which is most often called "hard-boiled detective fiction," was developed by a group of American pulp magazine writers in the 1920s. Certainly the best of them was former Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett, whose first novel, Red Harvest, was published in 1929. With the appearance of this bloody yarn, as Raymond Chandler later said, "Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley"; he "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse."

This gritty and sometimes shocking realism was the most obvious innovation of Hammett and the other early hard-boiled writers. More important was the fact that they created an alternative to the bemused detachment that dominated English crime writing at the time. Of course, the alternative could not mean avoiding detachment altogether: mysteries are written and read in larger quantities than other types of fiction, and no one who is not sadistic or masochistic could either read or write many tales of murder in a state of sensitive and passionate involvement.

What they created was a new and more honest kind of detachment: a distinctive bullet-biting toughness. Their humor was bitter and ironic, and not cute, as befits their subject matter. This new attitude, which is exactly what is "hard-boiled" about this kind of writing, makes it possible to acknowledge the real horror of human destructiveness while holding the distance needed to preserve one's sanity.

Hammett was the great pioneer. Raymond Chandler built on the foundations laid by Hammett's brisk, sophisticated melodramas in a series of novels beginning with The Big Sleep (1939), adding some things that were entirely his own—mainly, a vividly atmospheric style as richly orchestrated as a Puccini opera. Each of Chandler's stories is a journey to another time and place—usually in and around the Los Angeles of the '30s and '40s—and each time he convinces us that we know how it looks and smells.

Unlike Hammett (who only wrote five novels) and Chandler (who wrote a total of seven), Ross MacDonald has been consistently productive, writing a book about every year and a half for the past three decades. The Blue Hammer, his latest, shows that he is still going strong: it is one of his best. Yet although he is by far a more dependable producer, readers who love his two classic predecessors sometimes find MacDonald disappointing. Next to Hammett's exhilarating directness and moral simplicity, MacDonald's psychological studies—full of Freudian themes and hints of the complexity of moral truth—can seem pretentious. They don't have the sort of atmosphere that Chandler's stories have: the reader is only aware of time and place to the extent that the author explicitly tells him when and where the story is supposed to be taking place.

There really isn't much to distinguish his novels from one another, and it is hard to remember which is which after one has read several. One MacDonald reader told us that she finds herself beginning one only to realize she has read it before. They have an unusually large cast of characters (about 15 important ones in each), and the author makes no attempt to explore any one of them in depth. While we remember all five of the major characters in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon with a sort of reluctant affection, we generally don't remember MacDonald's characters as individuals at all.

We should think twice, though, before holding against him the near-interchangeability of his books. He is easily good enough that if he misses achieving a certain effect, he must not be aiming at it. To appreciate what he does achieve, we have to look where he is aiming.


Although the art of close and careful plotting often seems to be dead in contemporary literature, in MacDonald it thrives. He dazzles the reader by fully exploiting a certain unique possibility of mystery plotting.

A plot is an orderly system of events connected by cause and effect. It has a beginning in time and a temporal end. The author may choose not to tell it, however, in the order in which it "happened," starting at the beginning and ending at the end. The telling of the story may leap around in time, as in Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. Using the format of the mystery story, MacDonald pursues a neater alternative: he folds the plot in half and reveals both parts to his reader gradually and simultaneously.

One part of the story is the one that occurs in the present. It is the story of the complex doings and relationships encountered by Lew Archer—the detective-hero who is also the narrator—as he conducts his investigation. It begins as Archer enters a situation that has something wrong with it—in The Blue Hammer a painting is missing and seems to have been stolen. He is hired to find out what has happened. The pieces of information about the past that Archer picks up begin to develop into a coherent story that includes some of the same characters as the present story—more and more as time goes by.

Meanwhile, the situation in the present does not stand still. There really is something wrong with it, it is unstable. It blows up, usually around page 45 when Archer discovers the first corpse. The previous owner of the missing painting has been severely beaten, and as he dies he says something that jars loose an assumption we have been making for a long time. It is obvious that the first murder is only the beginning; there is "unexpended trouble in the air," as Archer says.

We are soon faced with many mysteries, the murder being only the most important one. Mainly, there are relationships between characters—hatred, indifference, desperate attraction—that have no visible cause. It becomes clear that the present story as a whole will make no sense until we understand the murky past story and see how the two are connected. There are many such connections, and one of them is the solution to the murders themselves. They developed out of the events in the past and were committed by someone we have met in both stories. The solution is, more or less, the key to the other connections.

As the two stories develop overlappingly, they sometimes display the awesomely complex logic of a Bach fugue. At their best, they are grand structures that deserve to be contemplated for their own beauty. When the key connection is found, the two stories lock together into a single system—the plot. When it happens, it can be revelatory; we haven't merely found out whodunit, we seem to understand everything. It almost redeems the tragedy we have witnessed.


The revelatory last scene of The Galton Case is an early-morning confrontation between Archer and an odd group of characters, one of whom is now a corpse slumped on an old bed. In the last lines, Archer hears a bird sing as dawn begins:

I went to the window. The river was white. The trees and buildings on its banks were resuming their colors and shapes. A light went on in one of the other houses. As if at this human signal, the bird raised its voice again.

Sheila said: "Listen."

John turned his head to listen. Even the dead man seemed to be listening.


After reading the story that ends here, the effect of these lines is something like a mystical experience, with the important difference that the symbolic light that floods Archer's world is the light of natural, rational insight.

As a matter of fact, MacDonald could often afford to drop the mystery format altogether, dispensing with the chance at revelation it gives and telling the story from beginning to end. His plots would still be complex and logical enough to be satisfying. He had originally intended to write The Galton Case as a "straight" novel; its being a mystery only makes a good plot better.

He does not go through the immense labor of constructing such plots on the grounds that every well-made novel needs one (if he believes that at all); it is almost forced on him by his view of reality. Human events in Archer's world carry the most important characteristic of plot in themselves: they are rigorously and intelligibly connected by the laws of cause and effect. His plots unfold from one particular sort of causation, a moral and psychological force that Archer continually calls "trouble."

MacDonald's concern with trouble is conscious and pervasive. It shows up in the title of the early novel Trouble Follows Me (1946) and in many of Archer's remarks, like, "She was trouble looking for someone to happen to" (The Wycherly Woman). "Trouble" is his name for the destructive consequences that follow from human irrationality and viciousness (usually the former). The real trouble begins when we can no longer control the destruction we cause. A blackmailer appears in the aftermath of what seemed a perfect crime; or an illegitimate child shows up, bringing home to his lost father the consequences he has never faced. Things get out of hand.

Once a mistake is made, trouble follows with a logic as intricate and ruthless as algebra. It resembles the "justice" (dike) in Greek tragedy, a cosmic force that the ancients believed restores an imbalance in nature created by wrongdoing. But trouble is not justice in our sense of the word, because it harms the innocent and the guilty alike. Trouble therefore must be stopped, and that is Archer's task. He discovers who is criminally responsible for it, not so that retribution can be exacted for what they have done, but simply in order to have them locked up someplace where they can no longer harm others or themselves. The point is to bring the tragedy to an end before trouble has expended itself.

Trouble, in Archer's world, is not so much the doing of individuals as it is the doing of relations between people. Good things come mainly from individuals acting as individuals—justice only comes from integrity and intelligence such as Archer's—but destruction is almost entirely social. Trouble usually begins in morbid relationships within a family, such as Fred Johnson's relations with his overprotective mother and dipsomaniac father in The Blue Hammer. This in turn poisons one's relations outside the family, which in turn can damage the lives of others even if they resist it.

So trouble radiates from a system of characters, and the system tends to be a group of families linked by irrationality, cowardice, and guilt. This is why MacDonald's stories have so many characters, and it is also why there is no deeply individual characterization. When we read them we must look at character in a way that is quite different from the one that works with most other authors: the point here is to understand this system. When we read to the end and the past story and the present story suddenly fit together, the shifting relations among the characters lock into place. That is how we see where the trouble lies, the source of the whole tragedy.

MacDonald's theme and his distinctive plotting and characterization are all perfectly suited to one another. The peculiarities of his characterization are dictated by the fact that his theme is the nature of trouble, and trouble is what shapes his plots. Together, they form a method that he has used to construct one book after another, books that, in a certain way, are much the same—primarily, they were all made by using this method. Well, why not? It works.


What does the hero of a detective novel do? Really, the answer is simple: his job. More than anything else, a detective novel is about a man at work. This is not true of any other type of fiction. It means that it gives us a chance to see something that is rare in fiction today: competence. Some of the most absorbing passages in MacDonald describe Archer pursuing a series of more or less menial activities—digging through old newspaper files, calling hospitals for a missing witness, driving hundreds of miles on a vague lead—and they are absorbing because he does all these things with a single goal in view, and we see that they are all aimed squarely at his goal with a steady hand.

That goal, of course, is the truth. Although crime detection is not the only profession that commits one to a search for truth—the scientist also seeks truth—detective fiction is the only type of literature that is so single-mindedly concerned with it. Although scientists' work made the field of science fiction possible, science fiction is not generally about the scientist's search for truth. Typically, it describes imaginary worlds in which certain imaginary scientific truths are already known.

The way in which MacDonald's works are concerned with truth makes it difficult for some people to take him seriously, because it commits him to a kind of optimism that conflicts with the dominant pessimism and nihilism of contemporary "serious" literature. Every mystery story is based on the assumption that the truth is very important and that, if enough virtue and skill is brought to bear, the truth will out. Any story of which this is not true is not really a mystery. A mystery is the story of a search for truth that ends with the truth's being found. It is therefore the story of a success.

At the beginning of a MacDonald novel we face a bewilderingly large mass of facts. Some readers take notes just to keep the characters sorted out. Most of the "facts" are the mere say-so of the rather dubious characters, and some of them are contradictory. All of them are more or less meaningless. Yet, in spite of the confusion, we feel oddly exhilarated, because we know that eventually it will all make perfect sense, impossible as that may seem.

When Archer does find the solution, he does not do so by a means of a series of intricate Holmesian deductions. The method he uses is much more like that of a literary critic interpreting a familiar text: he finds an explanation that fits all the ascertained facts, the only one that does so. Although his solution is always complicated—much more so than the simple ones the police usually come up with—it is the sort of thing that can hit you with a single liberating flash. The reader of a mystery has a right to expect that.

The protagonists of today's "serious" literature are often tortured, anxious, doubting men and women for whom life is a broken promise. Detective stories cannot be like that, not entirely. Still, MacDonald does not very neatly contrast with the likes of Pynchon and Didion and Mailer, either. He is, after all, a modern writer—the whole hard-boiled tradition is a modern tradition, a child of the 20th century. Today's serious writers tend to write in fragmented and difficult styles because they tend to believe that reality is fragmented and difficult. While MacDonald's style is nothing like that, the world we face at the beginning of one of his novels is precisely the fragmented world of modern literature, but with an enormous difference: in MacDonald those fragments will fit together and make sense.

The hard-boiled tradition is both modern and antimodern. It places a romantic hero in a naturalistic world. The detective is better than the people we know, but he navigates a world of people who are mostly worse: crooks, psychotics, fools, and creeps. Built into the genre is the possibility of falling in either of two directions. On the one hand, since the detective is a compassionate and ultramoral person under his hard exterior, it can collapse into sentimentality. This happens in The Blue Hammer in the scene between Archer and Betty Jo Siddon in the yard of the Johnsons' house, a scene that most resembles an oasis of treacle in the harsh landscape of the story. On the other hand, things can go about as far into modernity as one could want. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain created an atmosphere of psychopathic sordidness simply by writing a hard-boiled story about a murder and leaving the detective out.

Archer's work is not only the subject matter of the novels he appears in, it is also fundamental to his own character. It is what makes him good. Because he has a firm sense of purpose, the things that tempt others don't tempt him. The people who cause trouble around him tend to be either women or rich men, and the one thing these two groups have in common is the fact that their positions in life offer special opportunities for idleness.

While the poor people who become criminals in Archer's world generally do so out of a desperate need to improve their lot, the rich tend to cause trouble for a very different reason. A wealthy man's position is one in which he no longer has to do anything productive, while he does have to preserve what he already possesses. Such an orientation toward the past rather than the future, toward things rather than actions, is unwholesome and leads to an unwholesome self-indulgence. When he sees their homes, Archer always seems to detect a heavy, stagnant, museum-like quality that somehow suggests trouble to him. When he describes his first visit to the home of his wealthy client in The Blue Hammer he remarks: "I could feel the weight of the structure surrounding and hanging over me. It was more like a public building than a house." MacDonald's characterizations of rich people tend to be anticapitalist caricatures, but they also express a valid insight about the conditions of human worth.

The worth of the women in Archer's world depends entirely on whether or not they are occupied by some sort of work. Good women are either devoted to their families or involved in jobs outside the home. The woman Archer falls in love with in The Blue Hammer (and, by the way, readers have been waiting years to see this) is singular only in her intense pursuit of her career as a journalist. As a result, she does not have a certain flaw that many of MacDonald's women suffer from: she does not cling to Archer or try to possess him.

Fundamentally, Archer is separated from the morally compromised people around him by the fact that his attention is absorbed in his work. Beyond that, the unique nature of his work, the fact that it is a pursuit of the truth, also separates him. Someone who seeks only wealth and power might use almost any means to gain his end, but someone who seeks truth and justice as Archer does cannot do so by wholesale use of untruthful and unjust methods. His noble end ennobles his means.

Both fans of Ross MacDonald, the Hunts reside in New Jersey, where Lester teaches philosophy and Deborah is completing graduate studies in English.

NEXT: Systemantics

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