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Four Novels of the 1950s: The Way Some…

Four Novels of the 1950s: The Way Some People Die / The Barbarous Coast /…

by Ross Macdonald

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THE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE | read 2016-07
LOA publishes the Lew Archer novels chronologically, across three volumes, but not all novels are included in the set. The Way Some People Die is the third novel published, but the first in LOA's collection and the first I've read. Primarily I let myself enjoy the story, picking up a few observations I'm curious to track across the later novels. It's a quick read, and a dense plot, there could be many facets which could prove important later yet escaped my notice.

The setting in California, both northern and southern coasts and some inland areas, fits in with the film noir tradition. Heroin trade, organised crime, racial and class tensions: all provide glimpses into the seedy side of the U.S. 1950s postwar boom.

Archer traits are scattered throughout the text, few and brief, but leaving the impression Macdonald has a clear portrait in mind. Archer is said to have served in the Pacific under Colton in WWII, in Intelligence. Colton is now on staff with the L.A. District attorney. At some point after the war, Archer was muscled off the Long Beach PD, unwilling to kick in with one Sam Schneider's graft / payoff racket. There's a wary respect between Archer and Lieutenant Gary of the LAPD, though some fireworks and wrestling for show. Archer's middle-aged, and divorced. All of this fits well into the tarnished image of 1950s America.

Macdonald includes as much psychological description as physical when sketching characters, even minor ones: a landlord's chatter reminds Archer of a shark-hunting general in the war; Archer considers his options in terms of character profiles and motivations as much as from positions of strength or guile.

The story here begins with a missing persons case, and quickly strays into murder and the drug trade. Let's see how many of the later cases follow that trend.

THE BARBAROUS COAST | read 2016-11
This one largely in Malibu, much of the action orbiting a private club, its sordid history resurfacing. As with Some People Die events are set in motion with a missing person and soon shunted onto addiction, crime rackets, and murder.

Conversations between Archer and Tobias circle around America's white supremacy (Tobias knows it, Archer seems not to want to): the metafictional risk is that Archer will not rise to the moral challenge, let alone demonstrate principles. It will be interesting to see whether this theme develops further in later novels. The ingredients are all there, Macdonald describes them repeatedly and deliberately. The question is whether to do anything with them beyond building an uneasy backdrop for his plots. There is reason to think he will: the Chronology included at the end of this LOA edition quotes him as viewing plot as a vehicle for meaning, and disparaging Chandler who used plot merely to "generate good scenes".

THE DOOMSTERS | read 2017-02
Macdonald notes in essay "The Writer as Detective Hero" that Doomsters represents a clean break from the Chandler school of crime fiction, and the beginning of Archer's psychological turn: not so much trying to figure out what happened (solve crimes), as to understand the people involved in what happened. There are signs of this in the novel itself: Archer is never hired and so isn't paid: early on he's asked by Carl to help him only for Carl to assault him soon after & steal his car. Nevertheless Archer stays on the case (he notes to himself at one point "for obscure reasons") and doesn't correct people when they assume he's been hired by Carl's family.

Doomsters presents a slight twist on the missing person leading to murder / drugs / organised crime plot line. Archer meets the missing person shortly before he goes missing, and then the story follows the script. Macdonald this time weaves in a strong theme of mental illness -- empathetically, knowledgeably.

There is some additional backstory on Archer, perhaps meant to account for his interest in the case. A cop mentored him early in his life, helping turn him around from a "junior grade hood in Long Beach", but his efforts to pay it forward with Tom Rico fail, as he learns when Rico figures in the case. There's a bit more on his divorce from wife Sue 3-4 years prior, the timing of which may have contributed to his failure with Rico. Earlier novels mentioned the divorce, but that fact didn't figure in the case as much as vaguely providing character to Archer.

Macdonald loses his way a bit near the end, only wrapping up the story after two consecutive chapters of info dumps via conversation with Mildred. As this is the beginning of what appears to be a very conscious effort by Macdonald, I'm very curious to see how he improves in the next novel in this volume (which was also the next Archer novel written).


The editorial material includes a biographical Chronology, making clear the importance for Macdonald of his relationships with his wife (herself an author of fiction) and his daughter, his contentious professional and personal relationship with Raymond Chandler, and Macdonald's participation with the Mystery Writers of America. Especially intriguing is his self-assessment that a turning point came with The Doomsters insofar as Archer pivots from a primary concern with solving crimes, typically in attempting to find people, and instead attempts to understand them.

Maconald's letter to Alfred Knopf enlarges on his idea of plots for carrying meaning and not primarily to generate scenes.

The essay "The Writer as Detective Hero" is useful on Macdonald's psychological turn, his thinking on detective fiction generally. Archer is conceived not as the emotional center of the novel, but its mind, his efforts focused on piecing together other people's lives.


To be read:

"Preface to Archer in Hollywood"
"Writing The Galton Case"
"Down These Mean Streets" ( )
  elenchus | Aug 29, 2016 |
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