Friday, February 3, 2012

The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald (5/5)

Have you ever read a book with which you deliberately took your time so that it wouldn’t be over as quickly?  Did you painstakingly read each word to make sure you had fully digested each and every literary morsel because you knew that you would never have a chance to read those words for the first time ever again? 

I have.  I blame it on an essay I had to read in college, something about the “original experience” of discovering a particular work of art.  I can’t remember who wrote it—and I tried to Google it to no avail—but the gist is that the power of original experience can never be attained again.  You can read it again and enjoy it, but there will never be that same wonder of discovery that you had upon the first reading.  So when I find a book that touches me like that, I hold on with white knuckles and do my damnedest to soak in every word.

My most recent “original experience?”  The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald.  It’s a Noir novel from 1949, the first in the Lew Archer series of hardboiled mysteries.  It follows the stylistic trail blazed by Raymond Chandler, so I guess the book itself isn’t all that original, but I’m in love with Raymond Chandler, so why would I complain?  I love it all—the private investigator with a sense of justice, the nihilistic take on society and humanity in general, the hardboiled metaphors that make me want to squeal like a tween at a Justin Bieber concert. 

I’ll get to the plot summary at some point, I promise.  It’s just that right now I’m way too excited to do anything but gush.  Can you blame me?  I mean, just look at this:

“I tried smiling to encourage myself.  I was a good Joe after all.  Consorter with roughnecks, tarts, hard cases and easy marks; private eye at the keyhole of illicit bedrooms; informer to jealousy, rat behind the walls, hired gun to anybody with fifty dollars a day; but a good Joe after all.  The wrinkles formed at the corner of my eyes, the wings of my nose; the lips drew back from the teeth, but there was no smile.  All I got was a lean famished look like a coyote’s sneer.  The face had seen too many bars, too many rundown hotels and crummy love nests, too many courtrooms and prisons, postmortems and police lineups, too many nerve endings showing like tortured worms.  If I found the face on a stranger, I wouldn’t trust it.”

Squeeeee!  That’s the stuff, baby!  I know, I know, it’s become a little old hat by today’s standards.  And sometimes there’s so much of it in MacDonald’s work that even I found myself saying, “Alright, I get the picture, now get on with the story for Chrissakes!”  But despite all that, the sheer brilliance behind the prose leaves me gaping in awe.  Very few authors these days write with such iron in their words, which is why I go gaga over vintage crime authors like MacDonald.

The protagonist of The Moving Target, as I mentioned before, is a private investigator named Lew Archer.  He is hired (see?  I told you I would get to the plot summary eventually) by Mrs. Sampson, a paraplegic millionairess whose husband has disappeared on his way back from a business trip to Las Vegas.  She’s worried that he’s gotten sloshed and given away a mountain.  Seeing as he’s a wealthy land owner with a proclivity for wine, women, and song, the fears would appear to be well founded.  The story MacDonald weaves is a twisted one, intersecting with a washed up actress, the millionaire’s daughter and her love triangle involving her father’s solicitor and his personal pilot, a broken down jazz singer, a sun-worshiping charlatan, and a mishmash of varying criminal elements.  As with a lot of noir, the story focuses greatly on family secrets of the rich and elite, and those secrets manifest themselves in the greed and lust and jealousy that eventually leads to the characters’ downfall. 

It’s my personal belief that a book can’t be considered “noir” when it has a 100% happy ending.  There can be closure to a certain extent, but it can’t end with rainbows and sunshine and a love that lasts a lifetime.  The central message of the genre is that the world is shit because people suck.  There’s a little more to it than that, but you get the point.  How can you transmute that into an uplifting, fun-for-the-whole-family ending?  The short answer is that you can’t.  At least, you can’t and still have it be Noir.  That, I’m happy to say, isn’t something I had to worry about with The Moving Target

Another interesting tidbit, the name Ross MacDonald is a pseudonym.  Not surprising, considering that’s what most writers did in those days.  What is surprising is that the author’s real name was Kenneth Millar.  That name might strike a chord with fellow mystery aficionados, since it’s the same last name as another famous crime author, Margaret Millar, who just so happened to have been Kenneth Millar’s wife.  It’s funny.  The more I find out about these writerly types, the more I realize what an incestuous bunch they/we are. 

So that’s that on The Moving Target.  I absolutely loved it and have already been trolling the internet in search of the next book in the Lew Archer series, The Drowning Pool (which was incidentally the inspiration for the similarly named metal band).  There’s no holding back for me on this one.  I give it the full five stars.

I mean really—when a grown man “squeeees” with delight, can there be any other verdict?


  1. Just over from Book Blogs. The cover was enough to make me want to call in and read your review. I’m now a follower.

  2. I also love Raymond Chandler! And Dashiell Hammett, although (please don't judge too harshly- I think "The Maltese Falcon" is overrated.

    1. It's O.K. I know I'm supposed to like Red Harvest, too, but I didn't enjoy it that much. But I'll kindly disagree with you about The Maltese Falcon. ;)

  3. Not everyday you want to shout out 'Squeeeee' LoL You make these old mysteries sound so interesting. Makes me wonder if you spend half of your life trolling through old book stores.

    1. Not quite that much time, but enough. It helps that the last time I went to the best book store in the entire world (Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville, FL) I bought something like $160 worth of vintage books.

    2. Nice blog! Thanks for sharing this blog!How make it could u give me some suggestion actually i also want to create a new blog but have no any basic idea.Thanks. Movers

  4. In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels. Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers. In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

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