Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Morning Reading: Ross Macdonald

The newly launched Los Angeles Review of Books features Jefferson Hunter's essay "Black Blood: Ross Macdonald and the Oil Spill."


There are many reasons to read Ross Macdonald’s midcentury crime novels. All are exceptionally well-written, acute and humane in examining the psychology of guilt, and scrupulously observant about Southern California, that land of “the short hairs and the long hairs, the potheads and the acid heads, draft dodgers and dollar chasers, swingers and walking wounded, idiot saints, hard cases, foolish virgins” (so The Instant Enemy puts it in 1968). Still another reason to read Macdonald is his fascination with the region’s natural terrain, which over the course of his career became more and more a part of his dark stories. From some initial criminal act, Macdonald’s plots typically spread out widely in space and time, until they cover a whole landscape with a stain of wrongdoing or betrayal, and California itself comes to seem the victim....

...But in Sleeping Beauty (1973), the next to last of his books, even the Pacific becomes perturbed. Of all Macdonald’s fictions this is the one most focused on the natural environment—and, for that reason, the one most relevant to the present moment.

The novel starts with Archer flying back from Mexico to Southern California, glancing out the jetliner window. He catches sight of an oil spill in the ocean, “a free-form slick that seemed miles wide and many miles long.” What follows is the most expressive and frequently quoted of all the brilliant similes in Macdonald’s novels:

"An offshore oil platform stood up out of its windward end like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood."

The spill has happened close to a town called Pacific Point. Archer drives there and on the beach encounters a distraught young woman, Laurel Russo, wearing a white shirt and slacks; she wades into the water and picks up a grebe fouled with oil. Her eyes and the bird’s burn with the same anger. Archer and Laurel commiserate together, then separate. After an ugly confrontation between Archer and some oil-company roughnecks, he and Laurel meet again. In the meantime the grebe has died.

To read this in its entirety (and to check out the other articles), click here.


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