Review: It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives

It's All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives is a prose series of unpublished interviews with, and a visual retrospective of, the seminal mid-to-late 20th-century literary crime writer, Ross Macdonald.

Lew Archer, the private investigator who was Ross Macdonald’s signature literary character, is a guy who a lot of the younger generation saw as the best kind of father figure. Archer, who appeared in the sensationally good novels Macdonald penned through the 1950s, ‘60s, and into the first part of the ‘70s, wasn’t a beatnik or hippie guru who led a flock of wide-eyed teens and young adults through coffeehouse poetry reading sessions or acid trips. But he was a straight man who was always prepared to be sympathetic to youthful people’s problems.

When Archer encountered a troubled young person in the course of working his way through a case, before he wrote the kid off as just another deadbeat or dope fiend, he took the time to look into their home life to see what kinds of experiences might be at the root of the person’s problems. He didn’t automatically take the side of the youngish person over the older adult when he came across a generation gap conflict, but he was more than willing to see what parents and relatives and other adults might have done to lead the young people astray.

One younger person who found comfort in Lew Archer’s character was Paul Nelson, an influential music critic and A&R man who was a key behind-the-scenes player in the careers of cutting edge musicians from roughly the mid 1960s through the early ‘80s. Nelson, some 20 years younger than Macdonald, enjoyed the Lew Archer books so much, he longed to get to know the man who wrote them.

So, one day, he did what a lot of people who admire artists often think of doing: he simply looked Macdonald (Kenneth Millar is the writer’s actual name, but to keep things simple I’ll continue to call him Ross Macdonald here) up in the phone book and called him. Not only did Macdonald take the unexpected call in a friendly way—the same way Lew Archer might have done, if a younger person had called him out of nowhere and said they had some things they wanted to talk to him about—but he stretched the chat out so that it went on for over an hour. And this was just the first of a countless number of conversations the two men had with each other. Nelson recorded their chats, and they have been transcribed and printed in this extraordinary coffee table book.

The discussions between Nelson and Macdonald were largely focused on writing, naturally. They talked about Macdonald’s own books a great deal, but they also traded ideas on other writers, zooming in on a few who were the most important to Macdonald—primarily Hammett and Fitzgerald.  The work of Poe, Mailer, Chandler, Hemingway, Faulkner, Camus, Oates, and others also got investigated.  The literary chats between the two men make up most of the book, and they are always interesting.

Although Macdonald took pains to make clear to Nelson the differences between himself and Lew Archer, he sounds a lot like his literary P.I. when in conversation: knowing in a way where he sees people and situations from several different levels simultaneously, firm but fair in his analyses, sympathetic yet not one to suffer fools gladly. I was especially taken by the following thought from Macdonald, not only because in it he mentions two of my own favorite writers (Poe and Dostoevsky), but because of the message in his words:

“ . . . there’s an enormous strength and invigorating quality in the ability of somebody like Dostoevsky and the other Poeesque writers to face the darkness and explore it, and discover that it, too, is part of the human heritage and that we can live in it.  To turn your back on it, you know, you lose half of yourself. You’re like a man standing in sunlight without a shadow, which is a strange thing to be.”

As evidenced by these conversations, Macdonald’s knowledge and interests went far beyond literature. He and Nelson discussed all kinds of art forms, as well as history, philosophy, music, and so forth. Macdonald always managed to come off as knowledgeable without being stuffily professorial (even though he actually was a high school teacher and college professor at times). I was struck by this quote, in which he brings in some of his thoughts on history, philosophy, literature, religion, and psychology, all in one stroke:

“I think it’s true that imaginative people have to work out their own identities. That’s part of the work that’s given to them by their natures. They’re generally not content to just accept the kind of identity that that’s given to them by their immediate family members or their society. It’s particularly true of the writers of the last two centuries – let’s call it the Romantic period. The breakdown of traditional identities occurred partly as a result and partly as a cause of this Romantic development. It had to do with the complete disruption of traditional religion and society by things like the French Revolution and so on, and the tremendous philosophical revolution of the late eighteenth century. The forms – the selves, the egos, or whatever you want to call them – with which people had lived and done business, or within which people had lived their lives, gradually disappeared and people had to invent themselves again.”

Of course, many readers who will be drawn to this book will want to hear Ross Macdonald reflect on crime fiction, that of his own and others’ doing. Such people will not be let down. Nelson, although he made a name for himself by writing about music for publications like The Village Voice and Rolling Stone (when Rolling Stone was worth reading), knew his stuff when it came to crime novels, and the two men had unending, intriguing discussions on the genre. To read these talks is to understand just how intensely Macdonald thought about crime novels, not just his own but those written by others working in the terrain.

I could try and find an example or two of these thoughts of Macdonald’s to quote, but there are too many from which to choose. Instead, the last few quips of his that I’ll highlight are two thoughts that I was especially taken by that anyone interested in trying to understand the place where Ross Macdonald and Lew Archer meet should find enlightening:

“I really think we’re in this world to try to make sense out of the pains of it. It’s one of the things we’re here for.”

“I used to spend my evenings {when he was in college} in the public library, as well as the pool halls. That’s my mixture.”

It’s All One Case is more than a collection of interviews with Ross Macdonald. It’s also a lush coffee table book filled with a dizzying array of graphic materials: countless images of various covers of Macdonald’s novels, clips of his magazine articles, reproductions of parts of his personal letters, pictures of some of the books from his collection, posters advertising the films made from his novels, and on and on. There are illustrations of some manner on most of the pages. 

As interesting as Nelson’s and Macdonald’s conversations are, some might find it a challenge to read 280-odd pages of those chats in a cover-to-cover manner. Anyone who feels that way could treat the book as something you’d keep near the bathtub or other favorite reading spot, and flip through it from time to time, enjoying the images and maybe zeroing in on a particular topic of discussion; the table of contents and chapter headings make it easy to zone in on certain subjects.


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Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and reviews and articles of/on books, music, and film. His work has appeared in 25+ publications since 2008. His pieces on crime fiction have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Paperback Parade, The Life Sentence, Stark House Press, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, North Carolina.

His writing blog can be found at: Follow Brian on Twitter @greenes_circles


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    “He also helped the community through his involvement in the Coastguard Service, and His Majesty remains a patron of the Coastguard to this day.”

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