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  • Writer's pictureNazifa Islam

Ross MacDonald

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

After being lulled into complacency by weeks of rather idyllic existence—getting a job within a month of graduating from an MFA program will make you feel like you’re living in some kind of fantastyland—life has gotten rather uncooperative all of a sudden. I’ll spare you the gory details and get to the point of this blog post, which is that my most recent method of dealing with hard things is Ross MacDonald novels—and I think you should read them too.

They are pretty damn wonderful mysteries, second only to Agatha Christie’s in my opinion. No one will ever top Agatha Christie when it comes to a fantastic mystery writing. Death on the Nile, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, After the Funeral—nuff said. I’ve read over sixty of her books—which means I’ve covered most of the critically-acclaimed ones—and while there’s still a pile to go, I’m glad to have found another mystery writer worth sinking my teeth into.

I was introduced to Ross MacDonald two years ago while I was a naïve and impressionable first-year MFA student. Or, if “naïve” and “impressionable” aren’t the most accurate, I at least knew a lot less about creative writing back then. My Victorian Lit professor recommended The Doomsters, and after reading it, I was hooked. Lew Archer, MacDonald’s lead detective, is as fun to follow around as Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, and he’s a bit more believable as a real person. Not that I particularly care about believability. I just thought I’d throw that out there in case it was a selling point for anyone else.

MacDonald’s books have more than clever plots, baffling murders, and a compelling leading detective to recommend them; his prose is vivid and smart—it’s steeped in the noir tradition in the best possible way—and he creates complicated characters that are worth investing in. His novels are really about people—it’s like the mystery is just an excuse to look so closely at a web of characters. Really strange, interesting, deeply-flawed characters.

So if you too are looking for distractions from the realities of life, I highly recommend diving into the somewhat-dreary world of Lew Archer. The Chill, The Doomsters, or The Wycherly Woman are all excellent starting places.

In case you need a bit more convincing, and to give you a taste of Ross MacDonald, here are some quotes from his books. Hopefully they’ll make you want to go pick one up.

"I caught a glimpse of myself in the clouded mirror beside the deer-horn hatrack. I looked like a ghost from the present haunting a bloody moment in the past. Even the woman behind me had an insubstantial quality, as if her large body was a husk or shell from which the essential being had departed. I found myself associating the smell of mold with her."

-Ross Macdonald, The Chill

"'You don't need to flatter me. When I was twenty I looked like everybody else. Now I'm past seventy, I look like myself. It's a liberating fact.'"

-Ross Macdonald, The Chill

"It was one of those lulls in time when you can hear your heart ticking your life away, and nothing else. The sun had fallen behind the coastal range, and the valley was filling with twilight. A flight of blackbirds crossed the sky like visible wind, blowing and whiplashing."

-Ross Macdonald, Find a Victim

"'They let me live in a dream world,' she said bitterly. 'They let me believe that I was special, that nothing could ever touch me. You know who I thought I was? The Lady of Shalott, watching the world in a mirror. And then the mirror cracked.'"

-Ross Macdonald, Find a Victim

"'I think I'd almost welcome the flames. I'm very cold, Mr. Kelsey.'

Her tone was tragic, but there was a note of hysteria running through it, or something worse. A stubbornness which could mean that her mind had slipped a notch, and stuck at a crazy angle."

-Ross Macdonald, The Underground Man

"I went downstairs and paused outside the door of the manager's apartment to adjust my face. It felt from the inside as if I had it on a little crooked."

-Ross Macdonald, The Wycherly Woman

"I opened my eyes to the full white horror of morning."

-Ross Macdonald, The Wycherly Woman

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