September 7, 2010

Ross Macdonald's The Goodbye Look


The three names most often linked with the hard-boiled novel are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. (See my post on the hard-boiled mystery.) Chandler was inspired by Hammett’s novels; Macdonald, in turn, was influenced by Chandler’s work. Like his predecessors, Macdonald depicts a lone, tough-guy private investigator working in a southern California setting.

Ross Macdonald (pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) was the husband of Margaret Millar, another popular and successful mystery writer. He not only wrote detective novels but earned his doctorate in English literature and taught at university – like Robert B. Parker (who wrote his Ph.D. thesis about Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald).

Ross Macdonald wrote 24 books, 18 of them featuring the private eye, Lew Archer. A seriously talented author, Macdonald won the Grand Master Award – the most prestigious award given by the Mystery Writers of America. He also won the British Golden Dagger Award and the Eye Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Private Eye Writers of America. In 1971, Newsweek featured Macdonald on its cover. The Archer series, which ran from 1949 until 1976, is still very popular with readers today.

The Goodbye Look – the 15th novel in the Archer series – was an instant best-seller when it first appeared in 1969. William Goldman, in his New York Times review of the novel, claimed that the Lew Archer books are “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American” (1969). In The Goodbye Look, Archer is initially hired to investigate a robbery but soon discovers a series of murders, all connected in some way with the wealthy Chalmers and their troubled son, Nick.

At the heart of The Goodbye Look are family secrets that have a profound influence over present events. What distinguishes the novel is this haunting of the present by the past. Stephen Knight points out that Lew Archer’s cases typically “take him back through puzzling past events into their origins in family trauma, usually secrets of parenthood” (2004, 124). Macdonald’s detective novels resemble Gothic novels in their search for past secrets that dominate the present. Family conflicts are resolved through an intensive search of a past shrouded in mystery.

Macdonald was a pioneer in exploring the psychological dimensions of character. As indicated by his Ph.D. dissertation “The Inward Eye: A Study of Coleridge’s Psychological Criticism,” Macdonald was drawn to the mental landscape. The characters in The Goodbye Look are intriguing, complex, and convincing.

If Macdonald writes “novels of character about people with ghosts” (Goldman), then Archer plays the role of both detective and psychoanalysis, exploring past secrets and bringing them to light (Knight 2004, 124). Like Chesterton’s Father Brown, Archer plays the role of therapist, detective, and father-confessor. Betty Truttwell is one of a number of characters in The Goodbye Look who reveals her soul to Archer. “I’ve spilled all my secrets.” she tells him, “How do you make people do that?” (24).

The plot of the novel is intricate and complex, but the complexity is introduced gradually. Readers become enmeshed in a deepening mystery that draws them into its vortex. There are numerous interconnections between characters and events that slowly emerge as Archer makes new discoveries about the past.

Macdonald believed that plot should be pre-eminent in the detective novel. He regarded his skill in plotting as his mark of excellence, a skill that distinguished him from the novelist he was continually paired with – Raymond Chandler (Sharp 2003, 407).

Macdonald’s eye for significant details also contributes to his renown as a detective novelist. Born in California but raised in Canada, Macdonald returned to his roots as an adult, viewing his surroundings with a keen eye and a raised awareness. His depiction of the landscape and its people is powerful and evocative, presented in language that resonates. Macdonald’s terse, elliptical style eliminates all that is peripheral, concentrating instead on what is essential.

Goldman, William. “Review of The Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald.” New York Times . June 1, 1969.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Macdonald, Ross. The Goodbye Look. 1969. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Sharp, Michael D. “Plotting Chandler’s Demise: Ross Macdonald and the Neo-Aristotelian Detective Novel.” Studies in the Novel 35, no. 3 (2003): 405-26.