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STRANGERS IN TOWN

by Ross MacDonald; Edited by Tom Nolan

Crippen and Landru Publishers, 2001; (HC), $40; (Paperback) $15

Reviewed by Anthony V. Rainone

Ross MacDonald (1915-1983) brought a psychological exploration to the private eye genre that had previously been given scant attention. His concern was a human one, with tangled emotions and dysfunctional families laying the basic tracks to the winding plots of his works. He looked underneath the sordidness to the causes of human bad-guy/bad-woman behavior. He put them on the proverbial shrink’s couch. His private eyes have to understand why things occurred the way they did. As private eye Joe Rogers states in the first story “Death by Water,” “I’m just trying to understand it.” A smart retort is never good enough.

Tom Nolan has collected three previously unpublished stories by MacDonald into a slim volume entitled STRANGERS IN TOWN. For fans of MacDonald, they will recognize Nolan as the biographer who wrote perhaps the definitive work on MacDonald’s life thus far (the Macavity Award-winning ROSS MACDONALD: A LIFE, published in 1999). Two of the collected works are actual short stories, while the third is a novelette. What the collection as a whole achieves is a glimpse at the maturation of a giant in the private eye genre, a highly intelligent and sensitive man who didn’t think he could succeed in detective fiction, but one who gradually found his stride and claimed a rightful place in the holy troika of detective fiction writers: Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald.

“Death by Water” was written in 1945 when MacDonald was stationed in the South Pacific about the U.S.S. Shipley Bay, an aircraft carrier. He had already written one novel, THE DARK TUNNEL, but his wife Margaret Millar had written five and was working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. It can be argued that part of the reason MacDonald tried his hand at detective fiction was feeling left behind professionally by his wife. In any event, the young ensign wrote and submitted two short stories to an Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine contest, “Death by Water,” the first story in this collection, along with a second, “Death by Air.” The two stories used similar devices and the longer “Death by Air” was accepted and ultimately received fourth prize for the 29-year-old author, while William Faulkner collected second prize. “Death by Air” was later renamed “Find the Woman” and can be found in the short story collection THE NAME IS ARCHER (Bantam, 1971).

“Death by Water” was never submitted elsewhere, and languished until resurrected by Nolan, who discovered it along with the other two stories in the collection in a box of papers, letters, notes and other works in MacDonald’s UC Irvine archive. Unlike stories by other writers discovered posthumously and published without the author’s consent (the pillaging of Raymond Carver’s unfinished works comes to mind, as well as the decimation of Hemingway’s reputation), MacDonald intended for this story to be published, but didn’t do anything about it after the initial rejection. “Death by Water” features the prototype for Lew Archer, who would ultimately become one of the most significant of PI creations. In this early story however, the private eye is Joe Rogers, and while embryonic in form, MacDonald begins to establish the later qualities found in Archer. Most importantly, there is a real concern for what is happening to people. While the plot is transparent, the detail given to character exposition is generally exceptional. The reader feels he/she knows Mr. Ralston and his early exit is unfortunate, if only because he is so intriguing.

Chandler’s influence is apparent in “Death by Water” (what hard-boiled writer isn’t, or wasn’t, influenced by Chandler?). In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler states that down mean streets a man must go who is moral (my rough translation). MacDonald went further though: his private eyes use their positions to dig deep into the psyches of the dark sides of those committing crimes. Joe Rogers is nothing but moral, as was Archer. This made and makes his PI character so refreshing. Motives aren’t just unearthed and culprits ultimately caught: you feel the pain of the guilty. An especially enjoyable element in “Death by Air” is the usage of feminine vice. The wheelchair bound Mrs. Ralston is another prototype, this time for the woman who hires Lew Archer in THE MOVING TARGET.

“Strangers in Town” was written in 1950 and features Lew Archer (Joe Rogers only lasted for two stories). Nolan speculates that “Strangers in Town” was also written for Ellery Queen. There is no doubt it was completed with the initial intention of publishing. Nolan states in the biography that MacDonald created the name Lew Archer by amalgamating a family name on MacDonald’s mother’s side and an editor that MacDonald admired. The name isn’t so important as the man inside the suit. And Archer is starting to grow in his powers of psychological observation, humor and the wry retort. In his preface, Nolan states that the story was inspired by a trip to Palm Springs, in which a thermometer was discovered in a suitcase with a temperature reading of 107 F. What is noticeable in this novelette is MacDonald’s burgeoning confidence to pull plot and thematic material from his environment, as well as his use of personal information as applied to characters and situations, which becomes reliant in all his works. The thermometer figures in the solution, and film mogul Daryl Zanuck, whom MacDonald went to visit in Palm Springs that year, becomes the prototype for the organized crime figure in the story. MacDonald fails to accurately portray African-Americans, but the effort to recreate the world of Southern California is earnest. The plot of “Strangers in Town” is also vintage MacDonald, with its myriad twists in which virtually every character comes under suspicion. Symbolism becomes a structural element in this story, and again the dark nature of women quite capable of vice and murder, is preponderant and analyzed. MacDonald realized the potential in “Strangers in Town” and thus ultimately decided not to publish it. It later formed the backbone to the novel THE IVORY GRIN.

The final story in the collection is “The Angry Man,” which was published in the mid- 1950s and features MacDonald in full control of what he wants to say and how to say it. Foreshadowing and symbolism are further developed here. Archer becomes more full-bodied and the three-dimensionality of his character is on an equal footing with Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, though their development was much faster than Archer’s. No matter. The setting is Southern California, as are all the settings in MacDonald’s works. MacDonald knew the terrain well having been born there (as Kenneth Millar) and then eventually settling there after WWII. His locals are sunny and hot, but this is not a California for tourists. A psychologically unbalanced man is suspected of murder, the women are snakes in the grass and the family is certifiably psychotic and vindictive. Cops and shrinks are not to be relied upon for help. MacDonald has sunk his teeth into the meat that forms the grist of so many of his works. “The Angry Man” was perhaps written for Manhunt, a magazine that MacDonald had been submitting to at the time. Like “Strangers in Town,” he quickly saw the potential for a novel and pulled the work back from publication. It later became THE DOOMSTERS.

For any MacDonald fan, or for that matter, any fan of hard-boiled writing, this small collection is well worth it.

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