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the way some people die

19 december 2010

I was lucky enough, at a big barn-like booksale at a local museum lately, to pick up two big Ross Macdonald omnibuses: Archer in Hollywood (1967) and Archer in Jeopardy (1979). (And I immediately suffered the social scorn of carrying around triple-decker pulp volumes when I stopped at the cobbler's shop across Main Street: "What have you got there," the cobbler asked, "Reader's Digest condensed books?")

"Omnibuses are often posthumous," says Macdonald in the foreword to Archer in Hollywood; "it's nice, for me at least, that this one isn't" (vii). Macdonald also says in this foreword, of The Way Some People Die (1951), that some consider it his best book. "I hope it isn't," he goes on. "If it were it would mean I'd been over the hill for sixteen or seventeen years" (ix). But in now long-posthumous retrospect, of course, some book has to be an author's best.

I haven't read enough of Ross Macdonald to confirm or dispute critical judgments on the relative standing of The Way Some People Die. But among the few novels of his that I've read, it certainly has the leanest construction and the most elemental hard-boiled plot. The Way Some People Die starts like The Big Sleep and ends like The Maltese Falcon. Far from being anxious about the influence of Chandler and Hammett, of course, Macdonald reveled in it. His detective, Lew Archer, is named after Sam Spade's partner. Macdonald cheerfully acknowledged that Archer was modeled directly on Philip Marlowe. Archer's Southern California is very much Marlowe's, full of seedy bungalows and soiled dreams. And in The Way Some People Die, Archer makes a side trip to Spade's San Francisco to shake down some heroin dealers.

Early in The Way Some People Die, Lew Archer muses about his client's value system.

She lived in a world where people did this or that because they were good or evil. In my world people acted because they had to . . . Perhaps our worlds were the same after all, depending on how you looked at them. The things you had to do in my world made you good or evil in hers. (227)
At several points in the story, Archer does something that even he has to admit looks bad: let's say, sucker-punching a material witness. He always harks back to his principles. "Since it was necessary to hit him, I hit him: a short right hook under the ear" (298). Necessity weighs heavily on all of Macdonald's characters. Archer, with weaknesses for all kinds of fleshly pleasures, ultimately has to know the truth. Like most fictional detectives, what we might call an epistemological obsession drives him: what happened, and how can I be sure that it happened that way?

To get at the truth, Archer must navigate a world where people are driven by various stereotypical impulsions. Money and sex, mostly; sometimes drugs. Nobody acts gratuitously. The advantage, to a detective, of a world where people do what they have to is that you can reconstruct their behavior, however "patently impossible" it seems. The disadvantage is that nobody acts kindly. And in a world without the possibility of kindness, one is never at home.

I was in my driveway. I saw the garage door white in my headlights, a blank wall at the end of a journey from nowhere to nowhere. (277)
I haven't read nearly enough Ross Macdonald to make a definitive claim, but the language of the American detective novel can't very well get much better than that.

Macdonald, Ross. The Way Some People Die. 1951. In Archer in Hollywood. New York: Knopf, 1967. 173-346.