Friday, June 15, 2007

MacDonald and Nostalgia

It's a highly satisfying experience to read (and re-read) a Ross Macdonald novel. I just finished The Blue Hammer for the third time in about twenty years, and it was still a great read. There's just something about Macdonald's writing that stays with you after the book is closed. It's not just the sense of sadness that permeates, I think, all of his writing; this sadness is of course compounded for me by the knowledge that Macdonald was a relatively unhappy person and died, sad to say, of Alzheimer's disease in 1983. It's also a matter of his unflinching look at human nature and his refusal to turn away from what might be ugly or pathetic there.

I don't suppose this sounds cheery, and certainly there's not much humor in his novels, but I read them for their poetry. Macdonald does something with diction that not everyone else can achieve; he uses simile and metaphor almost constantly, and for someone else that would seem overdone, but in his books it becomes a tribute to metaphor, and a way to more deeply understand both his characters and his detective, Lew Archer, who might be one of the most melancholy gumshoes I've ever encountered.

The other satisfying thing about this novel is that it captures so much of its time period. In this case it was the mid-seventies (and it was Macdonald's last book), but he began in the fifties, and each novel carries with it a nostalgic look at its age. His fictional "Santa Teresa" was later resurrected by Sue Grafton in her alphabet mysteries, and she claims Macdonald as a major influence on her writing.

Now that I've finished The Blue Hammer, which was the end for Macdonald and for Archer, I think I'd like to go back to the beginning, to his book The Moving Target, which was written almost thirty years before in 1949.

If anyone wants to read a good short sample of Macdonald's fiction, I very much like his story "Midnight Blue," and it captures the spirit of Archer in a more compressed form.

Thank goodness for old books and comfortable chairs.


Erica Ridley said...

Sounds like a great read! Since I love getting addicted to a new author, do you recommend I read the first book in the series and move on from there? Or are they the sort of stories that can be read in any order?

Julia Buckley said...

Hi, Erica!

I think they can be read out of order, but you might want to start with an earlier one to get a sense of Lew Archer. I think he grew a bit more despondent as he grew older. Although one of my favorites besides THE BLUE HAMMER is also one of the later books called THE UNDERGROUND MAN.