by Sharon Tucker
Detective novels set in California—particularly San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara (or Santa Teresa) are particularly attractive to us in the rest of the country. What makes them seem out of the ordinary involves both the paradise syndrome of the California that exists only in our imaginations, as well as the schadenfreude we experience as the underside of the great Hollywood dream factory is lovingly detailed in fiction —especially detective fiction.
The shopworn, uncompromising edge of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade was my first exposure to a hardboiled detective in John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart once again did the honors for me in Howard Hawke’s film of The Big Sleep, this time as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Bogart was a good fit for Marlowe too, as far as I could see, but it wasn’t until I read both Hammett and Chandler later as a guilty pleasure when I was in college that the differences in the authors’ styles of writing struck me. Both detectives had much in common as characters, but Hammett told his stories without embellishment, while atmosphere and description were as important to Chandler as lean dialogue and twisting plots were to both.
Neither Hammett nor Chandler were nearly as prolific in writing novels as Macdonald, who had the luxury of many more years than his predecessors to write as California and the US moved on toward the 21st century. Initially, Macdonald’s style is almost as lean as Hammett’s, but Macdonald’s novels explore his characters’ inner territory and study them with a tragedian’s insight into their fate. Hammett’s leave analysis alone. Chandler’s chilly sensuousness repels as much as it invites the reader to see what happens next.
Ross Macdonald’s Archer novels are set in the same state as that of his predecessors, but his books change our focus from city detective work to what happens outside the big cities, moving his characters into the suburbs and small towns of Southern California after WWII. Archer is the natural heir to Spade and Marlowe, assuming the era’s mantle of the “antihero” we know so well in American film and fiction, during and after the Korean conflict. Archer realized, like his predecessors, that he couldn’t fix what was broken, and adroitly used his outsider status to become the only rectifying element in the chaos he encountered from case to case.
Sometimes I regret that my first exposure to Lew Archer was in the movie Harper starring Paul Newman. Newman understood the character of Lew Archer all right. It’s just that the irony is inescapable that a lavishly produced, star studded vehicle with a Hollywood icon cast in the role of Ross Macdonald’s low key, anti-establishment, low-maintenance private eye is a contradiction in terms. Despite any misgivings I have about it, a second Harper movie transplanted to New Orleans was filmed, The Drowning Pool, and plans for a third were in the works before falling through, but hey, that’s show business.
Fortunately, Archer is still there on the shelf for us, taking his place alongside Spade and Marlowe. More good news is that Macdonald’s influence lives on in the detectives of John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker and Randy Wayne White, to name but a very few. The focus of our more current detectives has changed with the times too, and it’s fascinating.
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