I haven’t read that widely in the mystery field. I did read all the Sherlock Holmes stories at an age too early to really appreciate them, I did read most of the Ellery Queen books, though I eventually got tired of them because they (Queen was two authors) tended to recycle plots, and I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie. That may be some of the best, but it’s by no means the whole field.
But one of the best of the American mystery writers was Ross MacDonald, and I recently reread some of his novels. His detective, Lew Archer, is kind of a curious character. He seems to have no private, intimate life of his own, but finds intimacy with the characters surrounding various murders. Intimacy acting something like a judge as well as a detective. Not because he directly punishes murderers, but because he uncovers what they’ve done, which brings its own punishment, sometimes by way of the law, sometimes not. MacDonald writes about fairly ordinary people who have made mistakes, and you can catch yourself thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Some have compared him to the contemporary writer Jonathan Kellerman, whose books are also set in Southern California, but there’s a crucial difference: Kellerman writes about monsters, not ordinary human beings.
Maybe that has to do with the times, as well as fashion. We were only beginning to learn about serial killers at the time of MacDonald’s death some 30 years ago. Since then there’s been a fascination with them, and the extremes of human behavior. I like Kellerman’s work as well, but often prefer Mac Donald’s. Maybe it’s because of his clarity about evil acts and how they affect not only the people they’re directed against, but also the people committing them. His characters often seem to be imprisoned by themselves, and when driven to confess often can’t stand their exposure and commit suicide. MacDonald also writes with clarity about how crimes affect the next generation. Children of his criminals tend to be lost and unhappy, liable to commit crimes of their own.
The Blue Hammer, which I believe to be his last novel, has somewhat more than usual curiosity. Central to it are two half-brothers with talent for art. One steals the others’ artwork, claims it as his own, and makes a reputation for himself. The other returns, kills his half-brother, and takes over his life, a pretty comfortable one. But after seven years, he can no longer stand it, and disappears into what turns out to be another prison.
MacDonald seems to be saying that art is not necessarily redeeming, as a number of people have believed. The artist can be as selfish and criminal as anyone else. A curious message, since MacDonald made his own living through art, though writing, not painting. Was he expressing regret about some aspect of his life?
Another curious thing is that Archer is always portrayed as being alone, though he has a few friends, mostly connected with his work, and has brief relationships with people surrounding the crimes he investigates. This is interesting in that MacDonald was married most, if not all of his adult life: in fact, his wife published a novel before he did, though he became much better known. In The Blue Hammer he begins a sexual relationship with one of the characters, and while the novel ends without being explicit, it’s implied that the relationship may continue. As if Archer’s work may have saved him in some way so that he can have the kind of life ordinary people have.
Above all, MacDonald’s books aren’t about the lurid nature of crime, but about the mystery of people. Crimes aren’t the only mysteries to be solved. The mystery of why the sins of the fathers or mothers should so distort lives is an important one, and seems to point to the question of why we tend to live such trivial lives, without accomplishments of any importance. How that could be different MacDonald doesn’t try to say. He just points to the evidence of it.
Money, sex, position and reputation are some of the things his characters strive for, and they fail to be enough. The question is an implicitly spiritual one, and Archer’s only answer to it seems to be the search for truth and justice. And this last novel implies that that isn’t enough for him. It remains an open question for most, if not all of us, I think.