Classics in September — Meet Me at the Morgue by Ross Macdonald — When Crime Fiction Lover announced the Classics in September series, it was a certainty that a Ross Macdonald novel would feature. After all the American writer forms the holy trinity of hardboiled authors alongside Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. His most enduring creation, appearing in 18 novels, beginning in 1949 with The Moving Target, was the Californian PI Lew Archer.
Archer shared some characteristics with those other famous detectives Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He’s an honest, honourable man – often world-weary, sometimes drinking too much. But Macdonald writes him differently. If Hammett took crime fiction away from the country house and into the gutter, and Chandler raised the prose to a literary level, then Macdonald did something just as revolutionary. He used Archer to shine a light on dysfunctional families. Macdonald exposed how the sins of the father are passed down the son, how secrets can stay buried for only so long before they return to the surface, and how the lies guilty people tell to others, and themselves, end up hurting the very people they were meant to protect. His books took on a touch of Freudian psychology, perhaps unsurprisingly, since analytical therapy had begun to flourish in California at the time.
Archer wasn’t Macdonald’s only hardboiled hero though. Meet Me at the Morgue deserves classic status on it’s own merits. Here, Howard Cross is a parole officer who becomes entangled in a child kidnapping. Fred Miner is on parole after causing the death of a stranger whilst driving drunk. To an extent he seems to have been rehabilitated, and has found some stability driving for local industrtialist Abel Johnson. However Johnson’s young son goes missing and Fred was the last person seen with the boy, and now he can’t be contacted. So it seems Fred has graduated from an accidental killing to something far more serious.
Prevented from contacting the police by the young and glamorous Mrs Johnson incase something should happen to her boy, Cross is forced to investigate on his own. It becomes clear there is more happening than first appears as bag men wind up dead, and sinister new faces arrive in town including Miner’s disgraced navy buddies, and a failed and embittered ex-starlet. What starts as a kidnapping ends with murder and blackmail.
Familiar themes emerge as Macdonald takes a scalpel to the damaged marriages of the Johnsons and the Miners – generations who can’t understand one another, how disappointment can fester, and how we can’t escape our past, no matter how fast we might run. This book, therefore, is not a radical departure from the Archer series, in fact Cross could be Archer without making any appreciable difference to the story.
Present also is the fantastic prose associated with the author, little nuggets of great writing that might either be dialogue or description. For example, “He was breathing hard, like a sprinter who had barely made it to the tape. His eyes had a glassy sheen and his face was loose, as if a heavy block of experience had fallen out of the Californian sky and dealt him a dazing blow.”
Meet Me at the Morgue is available in a great-looking paperback reprint from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, as are many of Macdonalds’ books. If you are familiar with the Lew Archer series and want to try something new then Meet Me at the Morgue is a great choice. Equally, if you’ve never read Ross MacDonald it’s as good a place as any to start.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars