Stuff & Nonsense 027: The Beast and Dragon, Adored
This week's interview was fun for me on multiple levels. I got to speak with author and friend Scott Adlerberg, who's written a number of great novels - including Jungle Horses and the upcoming Graveyard Love, both coming via Broken River Books. I was lucky enough to get an early look at the latter, which is a haunting, dark book that fans of this newsletter will dig.
I also got to talk to Scott about Ross Macdonald's most popular creation, private detective Lew Archer. Scott wrote a great essay about his need to revisit Macdonald's work not long ago that spurred this interview, which I suggest you read before diving in. As fans of this space know, I've spent the last few months re-reading Macdonald's Archer novels, from The Moving Target to The Blue Hammer.* I'm not really sure what compelled me to start this journey, but it's been thoroughly enjoyable - and reminded me of what a craftsman Macdonald was. As you'll learn from the discussion below, the Archer books start off as kind of Marlowe Light - covering some of the same ground as Chandler's detective but boasting more intricate plots and hints of more. Midway through the series, the books take a turn and evolve into an analysis of how the sins of the past can find ways to harm the present, becoming less about a good guy bringing bad guys to justice, though that's always part of the story. Even later, during the last leg of Macdonald's series, Archer even becomes a bit of a environmental advocate without losing the deadpan tone, haunting plots, lush setting and memorable characters that make the series great.
The next leg of this adventure will lead me into the books of Margaret Millar, a wonderful mystery writer whose work I need to read more of (she also happens to be Macdonald's - real name Kenneth Millar - wife). Here's a short, interesting story by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan on the couple's writing habits and how they overlap. Related: I (again) suggest you pick up Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s, an essential, two-volume collection edited by Sarah Weinman that recognizes some of the best, most overlooked mystery novels, including Millar's Beast in View. Of late, you can't talk about Macdonald without mentioning his pen pal and friend, writer Eudora Welty. The letters were recently collected in a book edited by Suzanne Marrs and Nolan, spurring lots of "did they or didn't they?"-style speculation about the authors' true feelings for each other. I leave that guessing for you, dear reader, to explore, as my chat with Scott focuses on Macdonald's Archer books.
Thanks to Scott for taking a minute to speak with me. As usual, this interview was edited for space and clarity.
Scott, I feel like we were driving on parallel paths recently, at least in terms of what we've been reading. What got you to also revisit the Archer books?
I re-read a few of the Archer novels recently in preparation for a piece I was going to do for Ross Macdonald’s 100th year birthday anniversary for The Life Sentence site. I wrote the piece but then The Life Sentence, sadly, closed shop. But yeah, I re-read The Chill, The Underground Man, and The Instant Enemy. I also recently read The Moving Target, Macdonald’s first Lew Archer novel, for the first time. Somehow in all my Archer reading, I’d never read that initial one. It was very interesting to read coming to it so late. You read someone for years and years and his fully formed work for a long time, then go back and see where he started. The Moving Target’s solid but you really see the Chandler influence in how tough Archer talks sometimes and the strained language, some labored similes in there. And he definitely doesn’t plot in The Moving Target like he does in his later works. The Moving Target is more like a Chandler novel in that it’s a collection of tense scenes moving towards a climax.
I had a similar experience with The Moving Target. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's unremarkable, but it definitely lacks the charm and skill you see crop up a few books into the series. When I started my re-read, I almost stopped midway through Target, just because I was a bit underwhelmed. But I'm glad I powered through it. You hint at an interesting point in your answer - which you flesh out a bit more in your Macdonald essay - about the series as whole. There's a definite turning point for Macdonald with the Archer books, where he pushes his protagonist beyond being a faulty - and a bit forced - Marlowe clone and transforms him into something deeper and almost philosophical. I know you point to The Galton Case as the earliest sign of the shift. Can you talk a bit about why that is? The Galton Case is the first Archer book that follows what will become a familiar type plot for Macdonald. Archer is on a case in which the past plays a huge role in influencing the present. The story involves a young runaway and Oedipal issues, family dynamics and psychological trauma. At the time, it wasn't your typical hard-boiled detective novel at all. And you see Archer making his change into what Macdonald later described as a kind of roving consciousness. We don't know all that much about Archer, ever really, because Macdonald writes him in such a way that he - and therefore the reader - is usually looking outward at others. We see him in The Galton Case in his role not only as detective but also almost as therapist or psychologist, a role he'll keep up for all 11 books that follow in the series. Archer doesn't just want to solve a crime but get to the root cause of a cycle of trauma. How do people put it? Your usual private eye is concerned with crime and justice, as is Archer. But beyond crime, Archer is concerned with what you might call sin. The original sin in a family that sets in motion generational dysfunction stained in blood.
I think the early Macdonald Archer books also bring up comparisons to Chandler's Marlowe novels - not surprisingly but also a bit unfairly. In simplistic terms, people point to Chandler as a stylist while Macdonald is more of a plotter, which comes across as much more blue collar and, well, less sexy. That said, I don't think the generalization is totally wrong. Macdonald's Archer plots are complex, serpentine and often confusing - but also resolve very nicely, with each surprise revelation feeling well-earned. Would you agree? Are there other places where Chandler and Macdonald diverge?
I think Macdonald is one of the all time great plotters. In crime fiction certainly and just in general. That's why I've said, besides just how much I enjoy reading him, I go back to re-reading him because you can learn so much from him. And I've never written a private eye story. But if you want to learn about how to construct a very complicated plot in a suspenseful way, regardless of what kind of fiction or crime fiction you're writing, you can learn a lot from Macdonald. And bear in mind that he crafts these labyrinthine stories in a very economical way. There's no Macdonald book as long as 300 pages. But how he weaves together so much information through dialogue, exposition, Archer's musings, and so on is something I admire very much. It's an area where he completely differs from Chandler, who didn't care all that much about plot. But the two saw plot so differently. For Chandler a plot is more of a succession of good scenes and standoffs with great dialogue and banter. The plot itself doesn't convey meaning with Chandler. With Macdonald, as he himself wrote, the plot itself, past influencing the present, buried secrets and repressed memories rising to the surface, is itself a way of conveying meaning. The plot isn't there just to be fun or decorative, though he sure does make them exciting.
Other areas of difference: I think Chandler's way of presenting criminals and the culprits is more conventional than Macdonald's. He doesn't get into motive all that much except for giving us fairly standard ones. Guy was in the sway of a femme fatale like in Farewell My Lovely. A woman was a crazed nymphomaniac like in The Big Sleep. Greed is a factor often. There's a basic motive and a crime or crimes, and the probing into psychology pretty much stops there. Thugs are thugs in his stories sometimes because that's just their function. You need a person in the room with a gun. Macdonald is very concerned with the actual reasons behind why people do what they do. From The Galton Case on, few if anybody in the books does anything "bad" or criminal just because that's their plot function. He tries to show fully rounded people who act out of weakness or fear or misunderstanding as often as they do out of malevolence. That doesn't mean there are no dangers or threats in the world, but it's an acknowledgement that those dangers and threats often come about because of complicated reasons difficult to understand without a lot of digging. Archer's the one who digs. Of course even when he understands, he still brings down the hammer on those who deserve it.
Also, I guess, settings. Chandler is the writer you think of now when you think of Los Angeles in literature. Macdonald, a bit later, is more the writer of southern California sprawl and the sububs. He seems always to be driving on freeways between one Southern Cal destination and another.
That's a great point - it does feel like Lew logs a lot of miles, and places like the fictional "Santa Theresa" and Luna Bay, appear a few times during the series. For me, it's Archer's exploration of motive that makes each book unique. That's what keeps me reading and jumping into the next book. You often hear people say - and you mention it earlier - that Macdonald tends to write the same kind of book over and over again, starting with the pivotal Galton Case. I don't disagree with that. Many of the mid-to-late Archer novels deal with past crimes coming back to haunt the present, and usually a new generation. Usually, the true villain is either the client or tied to the client, with Archer navigating many moral puzzles that he manages to navigate, with the occasional romantic slip-up. This all makes the books sound fairly repetitive, which thematically, they are. With that in mind, what keeps you interested?
That's a good question. The plots of the last 12 Archer books, overall, are similar. But it's a bit like listening to variations on a good musical theme. He works little wrinkles in each time that are different and with each book, in the most basic way, I get caught up in the mystery and want to know who did it and love following Archer on his odyssey as he does his investigation. Every time I enjoy seeing how the plot unfolds, how Macdonald is tying past to present and making surprising revelations. I also love how he captures Southern California in the early sixties to the mid seventies. Along with Joan Didion and a few others, he seems to me to be one of the best of that era in talking about California. Reading him now, I just feel like I'm in California, in the sun and smog, of that time - not unlike how when you read Chandler, you just feel that you're sinking into 1940's Los Angeles. Macdonald evokes his period and place as clearly as Chandler does his.
You definitely get a sense of setting in the books, and time - which we'll get into later, I'm sure. For me, the biggest thing I was reminded of while re-reading these books was that they could be very funny - Archer's dry wit is almost hilarious at certain points. Even after taking a severe beating or near death, he retains his deadpan tone and sensibility. Am I alone in this? Not alone maybe, but I don't think I laugh as much as you do when reading the Archer books. I don't find them somber or grim or anything like that. And you're right. He does retain his even tone regardless of what's happening, which is humorous at times. But this is an area where I do think Chandler, if we're just comparing, gets the edge big time. Marlowe's cynical voice, that wit, the similes - I laugh a lot, in the best way, when reading Chandler and occasionally when reading Macdonald.
That's true. Marlowe's zingers are much more immediate - and I'm not really sure if the moments I'm laughing at in the Archer books are all meant to be funny. Now, if, as discussed, The Galton Case signals a shift from Diet Marlowe to Lew Archer, fully formed, I'd point to Sleeping Beauty as a fourth quarter transition, moving from family secrets and their impact on today to something almost...environmental? It seems like Macdonald was thinking about the world we live in and how we as a people are treating it. Though it was his second-to-last book, it struck me as something he was keen on exploring. Couldn't agree more. Though I'd point to the novel just before Sleeping Beauty as the one where his environmental concerns come fully into play. Sleeping Beauty features a huge ocean oil spill that is based, I think, on a real spill that occurred in the Pacific, off California, in the 60's. Wherever Archer goes in the story, that pool of oil, coating birds, despoiling beaches, always seems to be nearby. That was a 1973 novel. His 1971 novel The Underground Man has at its core a huge fire that is raging in the hills above the towns Archer is moving through to track a missing, perhaps kidnapped, child, and it really adds a sense of danger and tension to the book. That fire is also based on a real event, when the LA area had one of its periodic drought season fires and apparently the fire came very close to Macdonald's house. He was perched on his roof with water buckets ready to try to beat it back from his house, but it receded before it actually got to his property. Both those books, Sleeping Beauty in particular, come in for some criticism for kind of going off course with the environmental concerns, but I think they are two of his strongest novels. Especially The Underground Man. As Archer moves through a landscape of emotionally ravaged people, the world around him is being ravaged. He does that kind of thing seamlessly. And in both of these, which are two of his last three books, the complicated plot and family dysfunction are worthy of ancient Greek drama. Whew, what a bunch of messed up people! So much fun to read about, though.
You're absolutely right about The Underground Man, and I guess it's safer to say Macdonald layers on the environmental concerns, because the family issues and menacing secrets of the past remain. Less obvious, and perhaps as a subset to the overall "Peak Archer" grouping, The Zebra-Striped Hearse strikes me as the first Archer book to not only explore the aforementioned family secrets, but also the idea of Archer as a man out of time. I believe one of the few references you get about Archer's career appears in The Chill, when he references the death of the thug Puddler in The Moving Target. If I extrapolate his comment correctly, it hints that each book happens about a year apart - meaning that by the time of The Chill, 11 years have passed. My point is, it feels like by this middle period, we see the "sins of the past" conceit supported by the idea that Archer is no longer of the moment - he has to deal with getting older and a new, younger generation of authority-defying hippies and youths. I think that's true. But what's curious is how even as Archer ostensibly gets older, he sides consistently more with the young than the old. In book after book, he sees the generations in conflict. He sees how bad the relations are between young adults and their parents. He sees drug-taking hippies and the like, and in nearly every story, it's the older generation who truly are the ones causing the pain. It's the arrogance of the elder generation, their hypocrisies, their terrible marriages, and Archer sees through all that as much as the younger people do. And he can't help but side with the younger people, even the most screwed-up ones. You have to imagine that Macdonald felt this way. In the sixties, seeing everything happening, all the excesses, he must have been very sympathetic to youth culture. At least in his mind. Archer's kind of his projection of himself helping out, I think, trying to redress the problems caused by the older generation. Which is another thing that makes Archer unusual, at least when he was written. He's a detective who is tough and has his moral priorities straight but he's very compassionate. He's not just out to catch the culprit and move on to the next job. He truly would make an ideal shrink.
Speaking of the Puddler reference and Archer aging - we never get an origin story for Archer. From the moment we meet him in The Moving Target, he's already been divorced and fired from his job on the Long Beach force. By the end of the series, he's been divorced for 25 years and clearly an older man. But because the series doesn't rely much on character momentum or extended backstory/references - Archer is very much a cipher. Macdonald is able to use each book as a way to explore different settings: the suburban wealth in The Drowning Pool, the entangled and multi-generational romances of The Underground Man, the Gatsby pastiche that is Black Money or the blurred identities of The Galton Case. What do you think this says about Macdonald as a writer? To me, it shows how the genre isn't limiting at all, but actually a way to explore anything of interest.
Macdonald is one of the writers who makes it very clear that you can write within a genre, and satisfy genre requirements, but still pursue your personal obsessions. I mean, if nothing else is obvious about Macdonald, there is no question that he's writing about things that mean everything to him. You don't get the sense he's repeating his themes and plots and so forth because he has a lack of imagination, but because he can't help himself. I think he's one of the first even critics accepted, when he was alive, as a genre writer who was writing from deep within, so to speak. There were a few others who had this kind of critical acceptance, Georges Simenon in France maybe, John Le Carre in the espionage field, but certainly MacDonald was among the first in the US. Now that kind of acceptance is something almost taken for granted by any reader with half a brain, that genre writing is no limitation on anything, and that's great, but it wasn't an idea so readily accepted when Macdonald worked.
With that in mind, is it still safe to say that Macdonald doesn't get the acclaim he deserves in comparison to his predecessors, like Chandler and Hammett?
Definitely safe to say. I have a few guesses why. One is that at bottom a lot of people just like the tough guy heroes of Chandler and Hammett more than they like Archer, who is, as we've said, less defined as a classic heroic type. As the Archer series moves along, there's less and less action of any kind, hardly any gunplay or roughing up of people. I think too there's just something about Macdonald's braininess that bugs people, like he's trying to show off how smart he is. I'll admit I never understood this criticism at all. Still others see all his psychologizing as shallow, armchair psychology, simplistic Freudianism of the worst kind and can't stand that. I don't know. Macdonald isn't as pitiless and existential as Hammett or as romantic about his hero - that great tarnished knight fighting the valiant fight in a corrupt world - as Chandler. He's something different, more contemplative, more forgiving, and he just doesn't connect with people like Chandler and Hammett do. But for my money, of the three greats, Macdonald is the most complete novelist of the three and yields to me the richest reading experience. And I love all three. But Hammett and Chandler at this point are held in an esteem that, great as they are, at times seems a bit over the top.
I have to agree with you there, Scott. For my money, Macdonald's the total package. The good thing is, we don't have to pick one - we can enjoy them all. How would you describe Macdonald's style - specific to the Archer books - to someone who hasn't read them?
He has a probing, descriptive style that draws you in and keeps you hooked. Evocative and atmospheric without going overboard. A style richer than Hammett's but not as layered as Chandler's. And there's something impressive about how his prose is contemplative, as I was said, and yet moves forward with a momentum that carries you through the complicated plots. I'm not sure how he does that - both thoughtful and quick at the same time - but he does.
To close out - do you have a favorite Archer novel or moment?
Favorite novel is a toss-up between The Goodbye Look and The Chill. I've read The Goodbye Look three times. I don't think I've read any other crime novel three times. There's something about that one's complex plot tied in perfectly with the emotions evoked about, of course, a troubled young man on the run from his family, that gets me. And The Chill, which I've read twice, is brilliant. It has an ending that comes as a real surprise and yet makes total sense and will, yes, send a chill up your spine.
Scott, what else are you working on these days? Tell me about your new novel, Graveyard Love - out from Broken River next year.
Graveyard Love is a story set in upstate New York in the dead of winter about three people each with their separate obsessions. A guy named Kurt, who's about 35, has left New York City where he was having problems and has settled in at his mother's house to write a novel he's working on. Trouble is, his mother is working on her own book, a memoir, and winds up getting him to ghost write it for her. He spends time working on her story, not his own book, and it's an uninhibited look at her life, sex life and all, making him kind of queasy. At the same time, he becomes preoccupied with a woman who regularly visits the graveyard across the street from his mother's house. This woman visits the same grave a few times a week and he starts to wonder why she's doing this and who she is, before he begins to follow her around. Stalking really. So three characters, all with their preoccupations, and of course nothing good is going to come of all this. Kurt is the narrator and it's safe to say he's an unreliable, somewhat unhinged narrator. So a guy, his mother, the woman the guy's obsessed with, and the dead person the woman's obsessed with. Noir with a touch of Poe and the Gothic perhaps. It's coming out February 1st from Broken River Books.
In the meantime, I'll be getting back to work soon on a novel I'm about halfway through, called Jack Waters. It's something of a change from my first three books (Spiders and Flies, Jungle Horses and Graveyard Love), which are all crime in one way or another and more or less contemporary. This one's set around 1900 and is about a murderer/poker player from New Orleans who winds up becoming a revolutionary on an island in the Caribbean. I'm having a lot of fun writing it and should have it done sometime next year.
Sounds great. Scott, thanks so much for coming by and chatting Archer with me. It was really a treat.
* I should note that, when possible, I enjoyed the audiobook versions of the Archer books as narrated by Tom Parker/Grover Gardner. Though I'm not an experienced audiobook person, I thought he did a solid and thoughtful job.
With such a long interview I almost skipped the links this week - but there were so many good ones I couldn't bring myself to.
I'll be living at Film Forum this week in December. And if you needed another reason to pick up Women Crime Writers - here are a few more.
A real suburban NY murder mystery is unfolding.
Excellent Charles Willeford profile.
Very useful writing advice from one of the best, Ian Rankin.
Netflix is getting in on the recent, Serial and The Jinx-fueled, true crime craze.
I hope you're reading Andrew Nette's great film noir essay series, The Big Nowhere.
I'm addicted to Cheryl Eddy's great true crime stories on io9. The latest could be the most insane.
Here's part 2 of my conversation with author and friend Kristi Belcamino, where we discuss P.I./detective series.
A Peckerwood and a Dirtbag walk into a bar...
No newsletter next week, as I'll be in Miami for Book Fair. See you soon and stay breezy.