Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Icepicks and Chainsaws


Recently I've been reading both John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald novels, close together. At the moment Ross reigns supreme and JDM is in the shade. Maybe in a few years that pendulum will swing back the other way; I certainly hope so.

At any rate, something stood out reading the two back-to-back-to-back. Both are writing in the late 60's/early 70's, and both Lew Archer and Travis McGee share a certain world-weary, nihilistic, these-kids-these-days way of looking at the world. They deal with it in different way, but there's not enough different about these two heroes to justify the strange shift in favor.

The difference I see is in the writing. More specifically, metaphor.

Ross MacDonald uses metaphor like an icepick, where John D. MacDonald uses it like a chainsaw. Both write elegant, vivid, wonderful metaphors, the kind of images that stick with you a long time after you put their books down. RM uses metaphor like Ali jabbing in his heyday: sticking and moving, sticking and moving. JDM, think George Foreman and his knockout cross...

Right now I'm reading The Underground Man, and it's peppered with lovely little images, a yellow-tinged sky like cheap paper darkening in the sunlight, a pair of pistols gleaming like strange blue jewels, shadows of palms like splashes of dark liquid on the pavements. No one is super-haunting, but like Ali and that jab, the cumulative effect is telling.

JDM's style was more about the single powerful image: that poor, strangled girl with her Long Lavender Look, the showdown under that Dreadful Lemon Sky, walking off into that Lonely Silver Rain. This guy doesn't ladle on the poetic imagery, he picks one single, resonant image and lets it shine. And yeah, that image is usually powerful enough that it gets picked for the title. There are exceptions, sure, but the point remains: when it came to metaphor, JDM went for the knockout punch.

Come to think of it, this reminds me of an older mystery-author pairing: Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Chandler peppered his work with such classic lines as 'she had the kind of body to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window' and 'he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.' Hammet gave us the Glass Key and Red Harvest.

I'm guessing these days, the jab is in fashion, more than the cross. If you're the sort of writer who uses layer on layer of imagery to build a haunting effect, that's awesome. And if you're the sort to go for a single, powerful image, the kind that stays with the reader *years* after covers close, you might have a harder time getting your foot in the door. But if you develop that technique to its fullest, you just might blast that door off its hinges...

6 comments:

Sidney said...

I love both MacDonalds, but Ross is my favorite. Brilliant plots and deep, deep humanity always. "The Blue Hammer" is one of my favorites but "The Wycherly Woman" is a masterpiece as is "Black Mony." On John D. I like "The Long Lavender Look" and "A Purple Place for Dying," but I agree, it's a different ball game. I also like a non-Travis novel of his called "A Bullet For Cinderella"

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, seems I better pick up some Ross MacDonald. I only read one some years ago and it didn't light my fire. Maybe I'm not a subtle sort of guy. I love JDM though. but on the strength of your and Sidneys's comments I'm going to see out some Ross M.

Barbara Martin said...

I have never read either of the MacDonalds, but perhaps I should take a look to learn their magic.

cs harris said...

I love JDM--he does so much with character and setting in so few words--but if I've read Ross MacDonald I don't remember it. Must look for some.

Not sure which approach I prefer. Must ponder...

Steve Malley said...

Sidney, I'm a John D man myself, Travis and non-Travis alike. I have to admit, though, I was really surprised to see how Lew Archer echoes through later sleuths, especially Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch...

Charles, they're a slower, more meditative experience, but beautifully written.

Barbara, the experience is certainly worthwhile.

Candy, like I said, I remain a JDM fan, through and through. :)

Avery DeBow said...

I love the single, haunting image style, but don't know if I'm quite good enough yet to pull it off.

Catherynne M. Valente is one author that weaves beautiful image after beautiful image. No one is stronger or more powerful than the other, but you finish her work feeling impacted by every word. She's the flip side of the ice pick, the swan's wing touching the water with each stroke as it glides over the lake.