Lessons learned from Ross Macdonald

Recently at San Francisco’s Green Apple bookstore I discovered an edition of Inward Journey (1984), a collection of essays, poetry, and remembrances dedicated to mystery writer Ross Macdonald and published shortly after his death. The collection is edited by Santa Barbara rare book seller Ralph B. Sipper, who also collaborated with Macdonald on his autobiographical Self Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past.

Ross Macdonald obviously affected and influenced a great number of people in and around the Santa Barbara writing scene. The anecdotes and memories related by his friends and acquaintances paint a picture of a private and thoughtful novelist who quietly guided a number of writers toward improving their craft. It’s a touching book that mostly avoids miring itself in the maudlin. Some of the writers are quite close to the subject, such as his wife’s warm and elegant recounting of an early and late memory of him. Other essayists are more distant and matter-of-fact, such as popular writer John D. MacDonald’s humorous tale of his dance with Ross Macdonald over the appropriate use of their last names in publication credits.

That confusion is due to Ross Macdonald being the pen name of Kenneth Millar, who adopted his father’s name to avoid being confused with wife Margaret Millar, a well-known novelist in her own right by the time his star began to rise. On top of that, Macdonald nee Millar also helplessly watched his style of detective fiction (and his detective, Lew Archer) relentlessly compared to hardboiled writers Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s work from a quarter century earlier—often to his own detriment.

Between his wife’s pen name, authors John D. MacDonald and Philip MacDonald, and the unasked-for competition with Chandler and Hammett, it’s a wonder Ross Macdonald was able to carve out a name for himself. He did, and his workmanlike approach to novel-writing led to a corpus of nearly thirty solid books, the bulk set in Macdonald’s own Southern California, in particular his home of Santa Barbara (renamed to Santa Teresa). As such, Macdonald inherited not merely Chandler’s mantle of the premier tough-guy detective writer but also the mantle of the leading Southern California mystery writer. The difference is, where Chandler’s stomping grounds are Los Angeles proper, Macdonald’s Lew Archer prowls the Southern California suburbs. This shift corresponded neatly with the rapid postwar growth of the Southern California valleys and coastal communities.

Free and joyful creation

Inward Journey opens with two previously unpublished essays by Macdonald himself. “The Scene of the Crime” is a lecture he gave at the University of Michigan in 1954 regarding the origins and development of the mystery story. It’s one of the most erudite, learned, and humble essays I’ve read on the subject. Macdonald had a degree in literature (his thesis analyzed Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and he draws on sources as wide-ranging as William Carlos Williams and Faulkner in way of framing the detective story as a modern narrative strategy devised in reaction to modernity itself:

“A Rose for Emily,” [Faulkner’s] most frequently reprinted story is a beautifully worked out mystery solved in a final sentence which no one who has read it will ever forget. … I don’t mean to try to borrow Faulkner’s authority in support of any such theses as these: that the mystery form is the gateway to literary grace…Still the fact remains he did use it, that the narrative techniques of the popular mystery are closely woven into the texture of much of his work.

The other chapter, “Farewell, Chandler,” originated as a private letter to his publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Pocket Books was republishing his detective novels and sought permission to “fix” them by making them more violent and sensational (and therefore more palatable to paperback readers). Macdonald was compared to Chandler his entire career, and this letter both acknowledges the debt while gingerly disentangling himself from Chandler’s legacy:

My hero is sexually diffident, ill-paid, and not very sure of himself. Compared with Chandler’s brilliant phantasmagoria this world is pale, I agree. But what is the point of comparison? This is not Chandler’s book. … None of my scenes have ever been written before, and some of them have real depth and moral excitement. I venture to say that none of my characters are familiar; they are freshly conceived from a point of view that rejects black and white classification…

A writer has to defend his feeling of free and joyful creation, illusory as it may be, and his sense that what he is writing is his own work. [emphasis mine]

These two chapters are worth reading (and worth republishing, if they’re not already.) If you’re a writer of any stripe, I would then encourage you read beyond them. Although many of the remembrances in Inward Journey are strictly personal anecdotes, more than a few dig into Macdonald’s bibliography for clues to understanding the man himself. They also relate tidbits of Macdonald’s writing habits and personal theories on fiction and form.

In particular, George Sims offers a wonderful history, book-by-book, of Macdonald’s bibliography, with highlights of his best work. The final chapters by Gilbert Sorrentino and Eudora Welty describe the evolution of Macdonald the writer (and Lew Archer, the hero) from Macdonald’s earliest works to his last. In 1954’s “The Scene of the Crime” Macdonald asserts the mystery novel stands to be viewed in the same light as Zola’s and Norris’ Naturalism; Welty picks up that theme in 1984 and asserts Macdonald has earned the right to be included in said light:

Character, rather than deed itself, is what remains uppermost and decisive to Macdonald as a novelist. In the course of its being explained, guilt is seldom seen as flat-out; it is disclosed in the round, and the light and shadings of character define its true features. … His detective speaks to us not as a moralist but as a fellow sufferer.

If you have any interest in Ross Macdonald or mystery / detective fiction, and your local library stocks this book, it’s well worth a trip to your nearest branch to absorb these chapters.

Twenty Writers: Another interpretation of The Flitcraft Parable (from The Maltese Falcon)

See the Introduction for more information on Twenty Writers, Twenty Books. The current list of writers and books is located at the Continuing Series page.


Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett

Earlier this year I wrote about “The Flitcraft Parable”, a story Sam Spade tells in The Maltese Falcon to Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the novel’s femme fatale. The parable is interesting for a number of reasons, but the central question that’s been attacked by readers and critics for almost a century is the purpose of its telling. Why does Sam Spade tell this odd story to O’Shaughnessy?

The story of Charles Flitcraft abandoning a secure life of money and family, only to return to a similar life in a different city, appears unrelated to the novel’s primary concern, the search for a bejeweled antique statuette. Some speculate Spade tells the story to O’Shaughnessy as a warning, that he knows she’s incapable of change and will continue lying to him, just as she’s lied in every encounter he’s had with her so far.

I don’t think the Flitcraft Parable is so simple. Before, I wrote about an academic connection I thought author Dashiell Hammett was making—that Charles Flitcraft’s assumed name, Charles Pierce, is a reference to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and Pragmatism, the school of thought Peirce founded. I’m the first to admit, it’s an egghead approach to a novel of murder and corruption, and one that Hammett probably didn’t expect a reader to delve terribly deeply into. That’s why I’m writing this post, a second look at the Flitcraft Parable, one that’s not so dependent on the headiness of nineteenth-century philosophy.

To be clear, I remain convinced Hammett intended to make a connection between Flitcraft and Charles Peirce’s philosophy. What I’m offering here is an interrelated interpretation of the Flitcraft Parable, an analysis that hews closer to the book’s plot and intentions without tossing out my first attempt.

If you’ve not read my first post, I’d recommend at least reading the section titled “The parable” before continuing. I’m not going to re-summarize the Flitcraft Parable here.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. In my prior post I attempted to avoid discussing the conclusion of The Maltese Falcon. It’s impossible for this post to do the same.

“The only formal problem of the story”

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Dr. Samuel Johnson was not Shakespeare’s first critic, but he was arguably Shakespeare’s first preeminent critic. Hard-boiled writer Raymond Chandler holds a similar relationship to Dashiell Hammett. In Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” (first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, fourteen years after the release of The Maltese Falcon), Chandler critiques and analyzes Hammett’s body of work, naming him as the one figure who represents the hard-boiled school of writing as its “ace performer.” He praises the forcefulness of Hammett’s prose and, most famously, how “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

Everything Chandler observes about Hammett’s writing can be applied to the Flitcraft Parable. Spade’s sparse language when telling the parable is as direct as darts puncturing a dartboard. The parable is constructed of fleshy people, people who do things for palpable reasons, even if those reasons are mysterious to us and based on an internalized logic we may never adopt.

Then, like Dr. Johnson’s best slicing analysis of Shakespeare, Chandler makes an off-the-cuff observation of The Maltese Falcon, tossing his insight before the reader’s feet as though embarrassed something so effortless must be mentioned:

…in reading The Maltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story), because the reader is kept thinking about something else. [Emphasis mine.]

What Chandler alludes to here is the first murder in The Maltese Falcon. In Chapter One, Miles Archer, Spade’s partner, rushes to take leggy Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s assignment for his own; the kids today would call it a “cock block.” That night—Chapter Two—Archer is found murdered. This is the “formal problem” Chandler draws attention to in-between those parentheses.

More dead bodies arrive in The Maltese Falcon, bullet-ridden corpses shot up like a stop sign outside an Alabama roadhouse, but none of the murders are truly mysterious. The moment cold-fish henchman Wilmer and his pocket .45 cannons are introduced, it’s patent the murders are his handiwork. None of the other characters are capable of it. Dandy Joel Cairo and aristocratic Gutman are too drenched in Old World genteel for the blithe butchery Wilmer is thirsty to administer. O’Shaughnessy may have claws, but her true power lies in charming men to do her killing for her. Chandler’s on the money; the only formal problem in The Maltese Falcon is the death of Archer, a murder not so easily pinned on Wilmer.

Step back and admire this for a moment. Archer is the first murder in a mystery novel—and the detective’s partner to boot—yet Archer’s corpse is all-but-forgotten five pages after Spade identifies the body. Archer’s death remains, at best, a tertiary concern for another 175 pages. With the fluidity of a street con, Hammett misdirects our attention with Istanbul intrigue, the promise of a jewel-encrusted statuette, and hoary tales of the Knights Templar. Papering over Archer’s murder is an audacious and under-appreciated maneuver on Hammett’s part, one that demonstrates the confident control he maintains throughout the book.

Spade’s credo

The mystery of Archer’s murder may all but disappear after Chapter Two, but it comes roaring back in the final chapter. Spade confronts Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom he’d told the Flitcraft Parable to earlier in the book, and states he knows she murdered Archer, pressing her and disarming her lies until she finally confesses.

In my prior post, I concluded that the Flitcraft Parable was a kind of manifesto for Spade, a declaration that he will eke out the truth of the matter, no matter the consequences. I also noted that

…Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in the third-person objective. Although Sam Spade is in every scene and the narrator stays close to him, we as readers are never privy to Spade’s internal thoughts. We can only guess what Spade is thinking at any moment. That’s the true mystery of The Maltese Falcon, not whodunnit, but What does Sam Spade know, and when does he know it?

Flatly, I believe Spade knows O’Shaughnessy had murdered Miles Archer when he tells her the Flitcraft Parable in Chapter Seven. I believe Spade suspects her as early as Chapter Two, when he views Archer’s body and takes a walk afterwards “thinking things over,” for all the reasons he names to O’Shaughnessy in the final pages.

If you view the Flitcraft Parable as a kind of manifesto or speech Spade is making for O’Shaughnessy, there’s one more speech Spade makes to her in the final chapter:

When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. … I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.

There’s a thin, near-invisible length of thread running between the Flitcraft Parable and the above, Spade’s credo.

The Flitcraft Parable, then, is Spade’s soft-sell to O’Shaughnessy. He’s telling her he’s a reasonable man. When Spade hears Flitcraft’s story of the falling beam, Spade agrees it seems reasonable, in it’s own way, for Flitcraft to abandon his wife and family–but he still returns to Mrs. Flitcraft to inform her what has happened to her husband.

Spade is accused of many things throughout The Maltese Falcon, some cold, some sordid, but with the Flitcraft Parable he’s quietly demonstrating to O’Shaughnessy that he will only bend so far. As he says in his credo, letting criminals go free “can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done.” He admits to her that Miles Archer “was a son of a bitch…you didn’t do me a damned bit of harm by killing him.” And then he hands her over to the police.

Would he have turned her in if she’d confessed earlier in the novel, after telling her the parable? It’s difficult to say, but the quiet way he tells it to her signals to me that he’s offering her a chance for redemption.

Chandler again, this time from his introduction to Trouble is My Business:

[The hard-boiled story] does not believe that murder will out and justice will be done—unless some very determined individual makes it his business to see that justice is done. The stories were about the men who made that happen. They were apt to be hard men, and what they did … was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get.

The Maltese Falcon is not a whodunnit, or a book about a statuette, or even a book about a private detective. It’s about a man who bears the weight of administering justice on-the-fly in a corrupt and mechanical world. Sam Spade holds two lives in his hands, Charles Flitcraft’s and Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s. Hard, dangerous work, work he could always get.