Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Plotting Chandler's Demise: Ross Macdonald and the Neo-Aristotelian Detective Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Plotting Chandler's Demise: Ross Macdonald and the Neo-Aristotelian Detective Novel

Article excerpt

I hope you weren't upset by my being upset about Chandler, but it was important at the time that on the occasion of the publication of The Moving Target, Chandler should have written to James Sandoe, then the top mystery critic in the US., cancelling me out as a "literary eunuch." I can still read Chandler with (diminishing) pleasure but will never write about him, being unwilling to subject myself to the painful discipline of being fair to him when he, for his part, subjected himself on my behalf to no moral discipline at all.

--Ross Macdonald, (1) letter to Gerald Walker Nov. 26, 1973 (Millar, Letter [6])

Throughout his career as a writer of detective fiction, Ross Macdonald found the name of Raymond Chandler virtually inescapable. Critics compared him (both positively and negatively) to Chandler, fans wrote him letters asking what he thought about Chandler, friends and colleagues urged him to write pieces about Chandler. In one particularly negative review of Macdonald's The Goodbye Look, published in the New Yorker in 1969, an ad for "Chandler's" (apparently a steakhouse) looms, mockingly, two columns over. Chandler haunted Macdonald incessantly. After Macdonald had been writing detective fiction for better than two decades and had achieved greater sales and received more high-profile reviews than Chandler ever had, even his most enthusiastic readers tended (with some notable exceptions) to define Macdonald's achievement in terms of its conformity to or refinement of the Chandleresque.

Macdonald spent a good portion of his writing career, particularly the latter part, attempting to distance himself from the specter of Raymond Chandler. Chandler became well known in the 1930s as a writer of hardboiled detective fiction for Black Mask magazine. With his 1944 manifesto, "The Simple Art of Murder," Chandler nearly single-handedly defined the American crime fiction tradition and posited himself (implicitly) as its most talented and knowledgeable practitioner, the legitimate heir of Dashiell Hammett. It became something of an inevitability in the years that followed (and is still true, to a certain extent, today) that writers whose work featured tough-guy P.I.s would be compared, favorably or otherwise, to Chandler. Macdonald's Lew Archer series began in 1947 with The Moving Target, and, like Chandler's novels, featured a street-wise detective-narrator working in a Southern California setting. Reviewers were not the only ones to draw connections between the two writers; Macdonald's own publishers packaged his books in ways that emphasized their affiliation with Chandler's) Macdonald himself admitted that, early in his career, he took Chandler as something of a mentor, but beginning in the 1950s, Macdonald became increasingly self-conscious about the comparisons to Chandler. For example, in 1952, in response to an editorial suggestion that one of Macdonald's novels lacked the force of Chandler's work and needed to be sharper in terms of both character and action, Macdonald wrote his publisher an angry and defensive letter in which he claimed: "I am interested in doing things in the mystery which Chandler didn't do, and probably couldn't" (Nolan 133).

Macdonald's ambivalence toward Chandler would change to a deep-seated bitterness in 1962 with the publication of Raymond Chandler Speaking, a selection of Chandler's private correspondence put together just a few years after his death in 1959. Among the many selections collected under the heading "Chandler on the Mystery Novel" is an excerpt of a 1949 letter from Chandler to prominent mystery critic James Sandoe in which Chandler discusses his reaction to Macdonald's The Moving Target, which he had just read. The excerpt is a thorough and occasionally mean-spirited attack on Macdonald's writing, particularly what he saw as the "pretentiousness in the phrasing and choice of words."

   A car is "acned with rust", not spotted [...] "The seconds piled up
   precariously like a tower of poker chips", etc. … 
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