Revisiting A Suburbia-Gone-Sour In Ross Macdonald's Crime Fiction

April 21, 2015 7:11 PM

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Ross Macdonald had a smart answer to the tedious question of why he devoted his considerable talents to writing "mere" detective stories: Macdonald said that the detective story was "a kind of welder's mask enabling writers to handle dangerously hot material." Like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (the great hard-boiled masters whom he revered), Macdonald set out to excavate the dark depths of American life; but to find his own "dangerously hot material" Macdonald descended into uncharted territory. His hard-boiled predecessors had walked the mean streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles; Macdonald moved to the suburbs — a California landscape of mortgaged dreams that already seems exhausted in the four mystery novels of the 1950s reprinted in this Library of America collection. All those images of suburbia-gone-sour that distinguish the work of a John Cheever, Richard Ford, Tom Perrotta, or even the early seasons of Mad Men owe something to Macdonald's penetrating vision.

It took Macdonald a while to find his voice, as he himself explains in a couple of moody autobiographical essays that appear at the end of this collection. His hard-knock life story reads like something out of a James M. Cain Depression-era noir. Macdonald was born in California in 1915, but grew up...

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