The Doomsters - Ross Macdonald
I’ve been reading and re-reading Ross Macdonald’s mysteries since I was a teenager in the middle 1970s. I think that Macdonald could do things in the mystery genre which Raymond Chandler couldn’t. In contrast to Chandler’s too convoluted plots, Macdonald constructed stories with no extra screws lying around at the end. For Macdonald, plot unfolds as characters struggle toward their goals, dogged by their shortcomings and bad decisions. The Doomsters covers three kinds of psychological pathologies; various sins like lechery, gluttony, despair; and the usual weaknesses such as envy and social climbing.
Most importantly, Macdonald’s PI Lew Archer has a heart and soul compared to lots of hard-boiled Pi’s that came after. In the climax of The Doomsters Archer says to the perp “I don’t hate you,” and thinks “I was an ex-cop and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.” For Macdonald, the source of pain and pathology lies not exclusively in lousy neighborhoods or bad friends, but in twisted family history.
The Doomsters is a turning point in the Archer novels. After this novel, Macdonald was to return again and again to large themes of justice, choice, and alienation. Released in 1958, but the theme that families and their troubles are never what they seem is timeless. Unhappy in their own fashion, indeed.