Monday, February 13, 2006

On Ross Macdonald

I was asked last week by a Dutch website to pick one crime novel that I would recommend above any other. This, as you can imagine, was not the easiest task in the world. If I had been asked to pick twenty, or even ten, then that might have been more fun, but selecting just one was hard.

In the end, I opted for The Chill by Ross Macdonald, the finest novelist among the four great early Californian crime writers (the others being James M.Cain, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, although feel free to differ.) I say "in the end", but it strikes me now that it wasn't really a difficult choice at all. Macdonald was one of the writers who set me on the path to becoming a crime novelist, along with James Lee Burke, and The Chill remains my favourite Macdonald book. It's a superb novel, perhaps one of the few mysteries whose plot justifies the phrase "perfectly crafted", with a sinister atmosphere, a frisson of twisted sexuality, and an ending that still remains one of the most jaw-dropping in the genre. Curiously, brilliant though it is, it's still slightly flawed, like a gemstone that is given some of its character and distinction by the tiniest of imperfections. The flaw in The Chill, I think, is that the most interesting and sympathetic character dies early on. It's a risky move by Macdonald—he was too good a writer to do something like that without realizing the impact that it would have on the book, and he foreshadows the killing beautifully with the death of an animal—but perhaps he did underestimate the impact of the character in question. Even after the murder, that character still seems to shine brighter than the young couple at the heart of the book.

Anyway, the other reason I chose Macdonald, or Kenneth Millar to give him his real name, was because I think he was an admirable man. I think James Lee Burke is an admirable man too. I've had the pleasure and honor of meeting him, but I'm never going to have the opportunity to meet Macdonald, not in this life. I've written about Burke elsewhere but I haven't said quite as much about Macdonald, and this seems like as good a time as any to rectify that situation. So here goes . . .

One incident in particular stands out for me in Macdonald's life, perhaps because it represents a point of intersection between Kenneth Millar the writer and Lew Archer, the private detective that Millar created and who seems to have a particular empathy in the novels for the problems of the young. In 1979, Millar was contacted by Paul Nelson, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Nelson was concerned about his friend, the singer Warren Zevon, who had recently checked himself out of Pinecrest, a Santa Barbara facility that he'd entered to combat drug and alcohol problems. Millar had once briefly met Zevon in the course of a lunch in Santa Barbara at which Zevon, who idolized Millar and his work, felt that he had embarrassed himself by being over-enthusiastic in front of the writer. Nelson told Millar that Zevon was in bad shape. Nobody could convince him to return to Pinecrest, but Nelson believed that Zevon might listen to Millar if Millar was prepared to take the time to talk to him.

That afternoon, the doorbell rang at Zevon's house. When Zevon opened the door, Kenneth Millar was standing there, like Lew Archer in the flesh come to deal with a troubled young soul. Millar stayed with Zevon for the afternoon, talking about music, telling him the names of the plants in Zevon's garden, listening, offering what advice and understanding he could. Then he left, and Zevon never saw him again. Later, Zevon wrote to Millar to thank him for his intervention, describing him as "not only the finest novelist but the personification of the noblest qualities of your work." Zevon dedicated his 1980 album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, to "Ken Millar, il migliore fabbro."

Millar died in 1983. Zevon, a mystery fan to the last, died twenty years later.

They met twice in their lives, but those meetings were pivotal, life-changing ones for the younger man. There is a wonderful line in The Doomsters, Millar's 1958 Archer novel, that sums up both Archer's philosophy and, it seems, Millar's own: "It was one of those times when you have to decide between your own inconvenience and the unknown quantity of another man's troubles."

Enough said. Enjoy your week.

This week, John read:
The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse
The Good German by Joseph Kanon

and listened to:
The Life Pursuit by Belle and Sebastian


Kevin Avery said...

I came across your fine post tonight as a result of doing some research on Paul Nelson, the writer who brought Ross Macdonald and Warren Zevon together. In case you're not aware, Mr. Nelson was found dead in his apartment on July 4th.

I wrote about Nelson's passing over at my blog Mere Words.

gangczar said...

John: I found this sensitve and throughful post while researching Ross Mcdonald. Well done. And thanks so much for leading me to the superb Paul Nelson article on Zevon. Now that I have found you, Sir, I will have to start reading your works! I look forward to that very much.
BR in LA