The Moving Target

The Moving Target



The Pequod Review:

Ross Macdonald (1915-1983, born Kenneth Millar) was one of the few modern crime writers who was also respected as a serious novelist. He is often considered alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the three successive giants of the hard-boiled tradition. But Macdonald is a very different writer than his peers. Where he excelled was in his plots; while Chandler was “fundamentally rather uninterested” in them, Macdonald claimed he spent eighteen months plotting out his books followed by six months actually writing them. And it shows — his plots are intricate and detailed, with sustained narratives that are fully believable to the end.

Where Macdonald failed, and to my mind why he remains distinctly inferior to at least Hammett and maybe even Chandler, is in his prose style. He is too self-consciously imitative of his predecessors, and like most imitations they come off as second-rate and forced. This becomes apparent in frequent wince-inducing similes and metaphors ("Its four-story facade stood in the diluted sunlight like an old woman with a powder-caked face surprised by morning.") that seem to appear only because Macdonald is imagining what someone like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe would say, not because they arise from the character organically. (Macdonald has also been criticized for recycling his plots, but I have not yet tired of them; and at any rate, the mystery genre is not one known for original narratives.)

Nonetheless, Macdonald’s books mostly work because of their plots, as well as his themes that often rise to almost Shakespearean levels, usually involving deep-seated family conflicts that span decades and have Oedipal elements.  

Macdonald’s most famous creation is the partly-autobiographical Lew Archer, a sympathetic private detective whom Macdonald would describe as “less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which other lives emerge.” The Moving Target is the first full-length Archer novel, and involves the detective's investigation into the disappearance of an alcoholic Southern California oil baron.