In Dirty Secrets, Ben Seth Ezra talks about the trio of definitive hard-boiled authors, Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, so embarking as I am on a serious study of Hammett, I thought it’d be sensible to check out the dark horse, Macdonald. I’ve used Dirty Secrets to untangle Chandler before, and I thought it’d be interesting to have a casual look at doing that for The Blue Hammer.
DS talks about three kinds of scenes: investigation scenes (where the detective finds stuff out), violence scenes (where someone takes a poke at him to spur the action or delay us pausing to think) and reflection scenes (where the detective sifts through his notes and finds the will to carry on). Marlowe routinely experiences all of these things, and to a lesser extent so does the Continental Op. Lew Archer… only investigates. Mike Hammer might spend his entire time kicking in doors or teeth, and hence become a satire, but Lew Archer dials down the hard-boiled elements to the point where you wonder whether he’s really a different kind of detective from any modern investigative detective. At best, he’s the soft-boiled detective.
The plot construction is similarly deviant from the hard-boiled rubric. Hammett’s stories are fundamentally about simple people creeping deeper into complex situations and problems. The explanation is never really too complex, and never really has too many moving parts. Chandler tends to be more comfortable with complexity and with opacity. Macdonald succumbs to the kind of meticulously intricate material that Christie and her ilk revelled in, with all the usual trappings of doubled identities and long-lost relations and skeletons in the closets. I gave up trying to properly solve the puzzle when I realized that the completely straightforward semiotic arrangements that mean the butler is your first suspect were applicable and bingo: puzzle solved at the 2/3 point of the novel.
Ellroy is similarly guilty of absurd complexity even in his best works. White Jazz hinges on an absolutely stunning array of historical interrelated perversions and uncovered deviances. He not only gets away with it, but manages to make it all compelling, by playing it to the hilt and never flinching from any horrific implication, all the while somehow still making us empathise with his completely broken characters. Macdonald’s material is just a bit too tame, and a bit too ordinary to similarly gut-puinching.
All in all, forgettable.