Friday, September 6, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: BLUE CITY by Ross MacDonald

Ask any serious crime fiction aficionado to make a list of the genre's most influential novels and I'll wager Dashiell Hammett's RED HARVEST will be somewhere near the top. If not at the very top. First published in 1929, this violent tale of a nameless private detective who decides to clean up a corrupt town by setting the various controlling factions against each other set the bar for generations of writers and moviemakers to come, and was even listed in TIME's list of 100 Most Important Books of the 20th Century. I know it's the most important book in my life, and has been ever since I picked up a tattered paperback copy at a used book sale half a lifetime ago. I generally make a point of rereading it every couple of years and always come away satisfied - it's one of those novels that simply works on every level.

For some reason (possibly due to rights issues) there's never been a straight movie adaptation of the book, but in 1960 the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, poached the basic plot (as well as the man-with-no-name protagonist) for his samurai western YOJIMBO, and a classic movie was born. The great Italian director, Sergio Leone, then did the same four years later with A FISTFUL FOR DOLLARS, which not only launched Clint Eastwood's career but spawned a whole sub-genre of Spaghetti Westerns to boot. Thirty years after that, Walter Hill then made his own loose version - LAST MAN STANDING, starring Bruce Willis - and this time went so far as to set it in the same time frame as the original novel. And if you look closely, you can also find similar homages in the Coen Brothers' MILLER'S CROSSING and the first half of George Miller's MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME.

But the book's influence hasn't just been restricted to the cinema. Over the years, a number of crime authors have also used the book's basic premise as a starting point for their own novels. For instance, the late, great Donald Westlake made no secret of his admiration for Hammett's masterpiece and used the 'cleaning-up-the-corrupt-town' formula on at least two occasions. The first, a fairly hard-boiled P.I. thriller called KILLING TIME, shows a youngish writer still learning his craft, but is still enjoyable for all that. But his second attempt, BUTCHER'S MOON, written under his Richard Stark persona and starring his series character Parker, is a total success and still stands as one of the high-points in that much-loved series.

In 1970, Britain's Ted Lewis also took a stab at it, making the protagonist of his version a mob enforcer and changing the setting to Doncaster, England. The resulting novel, JACK'S RETURN HOME, is not only an excellent piece of work in its own right, but spawned two prequels and one of the best gangster movies ever made: GET CARTER.

And then there's BLUE CITY by Ross MacDonald - the focus of this post, if you remember. MacDonald, of course, is better known these days for his long running series of novels starring private eye, Lew Archer (beginning with THE MOVING TARGET in 1949). But he also wrote several standalone thrillers before that, and this little gem from 1947 was one of them.

Originally published under the author's real name, Kenneth Millar, BLUE CITY is written in first-person from the viewpoint of John Weather, a twenty-two-year old veteran who returns to his home town after the war only to discover his estranged father was murdered two years previously, and that nobody seems particularly interested in tracking down the killer. So Weather immediately takes it upon himself to uncover the truth and soon finds himself mixing it up with a variety of drug dealers, enforcers, pimps, hookers, crime bosses, shady businessmen, local government officials and a crooked police force. Not to mention a stepmother he never even knew existed. And all of them have their own reasons for wanted the past to stay dead and buried...

At only 165 pages, BLUE CITY is the very definition of a lean and mean thriller. The whole book takes place over a 24-hour period too, which only adds to the frantic pace. It's also an extremely angry book, starring a young man with a big hate on for the post-war depravity and small-town corruption he sees all around him. A view the author clearly shared at the time of writing. As MacDonald wrote in a 1952 letter to his publisher, '(Blue City) was about a town where I had suffered, and several of the characters were based on people I hated.'

Considering it was only his third novel, it's a remarkably confident book. The pace and plot remain strong throughout and MacDonald's great descriptive powers are already in evidence, such as when Weather goes into a pool hall and spots the guy he's there to meet: - 'He had white hair and a goose-flesh face as white as typewriter paper. The outer corners of his pale-pink eyes drooped towards the corner of his mouth, as if his face had been parted in the middle and combed downwards.' - Now that's some nice imagery there. Granted, it's a little pulpy and those two metaphors are a little too Chandler-esque for their own good, but it's still concise and well-written and gives the reader just enough visual information to picture the guy.

MacDonald's gift for snappy dialogue is also present right from the start. Weather's barely gotten off the bus when he decides to grab a beer in the nearest bar, and then he's forced to wait while the bartender (named Henry) tries to impress a couple of female customers:

     I rapped on the bar with a quarter.
     'Somebody's getting impatient,' Henry said. 'When somebody gets impatient that makes me nervous. When I'm nervous I'm no damn good for anything at all.'
     'A bottle of beer,' I said.
     'Look at my hand,' Henry said. 'It's trembling like a leaf.' He held out a big gray hand and smiled down at it. 'Beer, you say?'
     'If this place is still in business.'
     He took a bottle out of the cooler, uncapped it, and shuffled along the bar towards me.
     He looked at me with potential dislike. 'What's the matter, you got no sense of humor?'
     'Sure, but I checked it in another town. Go right on being sidesplitting for your friends.'
     'You're a stranger in town, aren't you? Maybe you just don't know how we talk around here.'
     'I'm learning fast.'
     'You can't learn too fast.'
     'Do you serve glasses with your beer? I'll have one.'
     'Olive or maraschino?'
     'Just dip your thumb in it when you pour it.'
     'Pour it yourself.'

It's a great scene, with the dialogue treading a fine line between realism and movie-talk. However, there are other instances where MacDonald breaks the barrier and goes entirely Hollywood, producing the kind of dialogue you'd expect from a Bogart and Bacall movie. Such as this exchange between Weather and a dance-hall girl named Carla:

     'A nice boy like you,' she recited, ' shouldn't be sitting all by his lonesome.'
     'A nice girl like you shouldn't be wasting her time on a guy like me.'
     'Why? What's the matter with you? I think you're kind of cute.'
     'You flatter me.'
     'Sure. Now that I've flattered you, you can buy me a drink.'
     I said: 'The approach abrupt. Do I look well heeled?'
     'Appearances are so deceptive.'
     'In your case, for example. You've got your face made up to suit this joint. Protective coloration, they call it in biology.'
     'Kid me some more,' she said flatly. 'You can if you buy me a drink. Biology is a very interesting subject.'
     'I like my biology experimental. Not cut and dried.'

Now that's a nice little exchange but its cleverness almost works against the novel. It's a little too knowing, with each character sounding like they're playing a role rather than just being themselves. Because I'm pretty sure nobody ever talked like that in real life, not even in the forties. 'The approach abrupt'? I mean, come on. And it also highlights another minor problem, which is that Weather is clearly portrayed as someone a lot older than his years. Halfway through the book, I had to go back to the first few pages and make sure I'd read it right that he was only twenty-two. I can't speak for anybody else, but I know for a fact that I was never that cool or eloquent at that age. Not even when I was drunk.

But those little quibbles aside, BLUE CITY still holds up as a fantastic little thriller from a master of the genre, and therefore gets my full recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.