Thursday, June 10, 2010
AudioFile Magazine awarded an Earphones today to my recording of Ross Macdonald's The Wycherly Woman. That's great news for me, of course, but even better news for Ross Macdonald, whose reputation seems to have languished in recent years. This August will see the release of my sixteenth Lew Archer recording, The Ivory Grin. Few things have brought me greater pleasure over the years than to revisit, every so often, the voluble, eccentric characters who populate a typical Archer tale--from hare-brained beatniks to domineering, jewel-encrusted matriarchs.
Mystery aficionados have deemed Macdonald the heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. At a recent book club gathering here in Ashland, author Christopher Rice spoke of his indebtedness to Macdonald's mastery of character and psychological detail. And I get the occasional fan letter thanking me (and Blackstone) for devoting the time and effort to publishing his works in audio. But the general public seems to prefer racier fare these days--slashers and serial killers--to Macdonald's moody, sardonic forays into the human condition. Thus it's gratifying to see the audio versions garnering consistent praise in the audiobook press--not just for the performances, which is flattering, but for the quality of the writing. Black Money was even nominated for an Audie Award in the contemporary mystery category this year. Not bad for a fifty-year-old detective story...
Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, was a complicated man who lived a complicated life that is reflected in the shifting moral sands charted in his novels. His wife, Margaret Millar, achieved early fame as the author of a series of taut psychological crime dramas, and is generally considered to be the better writer of the two. Macdonald himself struggled to find his niche, but when he did, with the first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, in 1949, he settled into a groove that earned him a reputation that has outlasted that of his wife. Their only child, Linda, died at the age of 31 after struggling with alcohol and depression.
I think it could fairly be said that most mystery writers don't lead lives that warrant lengthy, in-depth examination. Tom Nolan's 1999 biography of Macdonald, however, is well worth reading, not only for his crisp analysis of Macdonald's work but for his even-handed, if often painful, exploration of the closely-guarded inner life of this brilliant and troubled man.
WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!
I'll conclude with what I hope will be viewed not as self-promotion, but rather as a personal tribute to one of my favorite authors--an audio excerpt from the final pages of The Moving Target. It's also a whopper of a spoiler, for which I apologize, but of the many wonderful examples of dialogue in Macdonald's novels, this one has always stood out in my mind. It's a classic confession scene, but with a twist: Archer and the killer, who is an acquaintance from law enforcement days and has just married the victim's daughter, have driven together to the dead man's mansion. As they sit parked in the driveway, Archer confronts his old friend with his suspicions. It's not the typical, lame "I'll-explain-everything-before-I-blow-your-head-off" device, but a bleak conversation about a necessary parting of ways. It's characteristic of the moral stickiness that pervades Macdonald's work. My favorite line is, "I shot Taggart in good faith!"