The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald (1949)

How does he do it? How does he make you turn those pages, rapaciously reading? And what’s hidden in his noir style that gives it that compelling impetus?

Let’s remind ourselves of the definition of ‘noir’. ‘A genre of crime film or fiction characterised by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.’

No wonder I like it so much.

So what’s under the bonnet? Let’s have a look at a couple of style tools from a couple of the books in the 18-book Lew Archer series (The Moving Target being the first).

Like his forerunner Raymond Chandler, Macdonald uses someone’s surroundings – usually a room – to describe their character and aura.

Colour works.

The waiting room was finished in cool green cloth and bleached wood. A blonde receptionist with cool green eyes completed the colour scheme and said: ‘Do you have an appointment, sir?’

Or mix and match.

The waitress had a red-checked apron that matched the tablecloth and a complexion that matched the coffee.

That’s all very well for the bland and bleak. How to ratchet it up a bit? Liven it up. Hey, maybe even a bit of menace. This is after all, a detective series.

How about a killer colour contrast?

A woman in a red sweater and slacks was curled like a scarlet snake in one corner of a green canvas porch swing.

Bingo. Now we’re talking. Something dangerous on something soft.

Which brings us to observation. Noir detectives take you with them, usually using the first person. The narrative style is to get you hooked on observing with them. It’s their job, and they have to observe everything. It’s a matter of life or death.

Hatred flashed in the ocean-coloured eyes and disappeared, like a shark-fin.

With so much at stake, that observation has to be sharp. And when the chips are down, any resulting actions need to be slow and almost ponderous to avoid sudden movements or accidents. Repetition is a lovely tool for this.

‘Now take it easy, this is a gun I have at your back. Don’t you feel it?’

I felt it. I took it easy.

Dig that pace.

Or this less obvious repetition of an idea, for impact…

She thrust herself out of her seat, a gaunt Mexican girl with hair like fresh poured tar. From her clenched right fist, a four-inch knife-blade projected upward.

How’s that for determination. Love the thrust coming so early, about twenty words before the knife even thinks about coming into the paragraph.

Glad she isn’t my landlady.

What about the moral ambiguity? Well, in Macdonald’s case, it’s often tip-toeing around Lew Archer’s acute observation of the female form. After all, you can almost hear him say, that’s where the real power lies.

She was dressed to attract attention in a black-and-white-striped linen dress with a plunging neckline and a very close waist. I gave her attention.

Please don’t tell me you missed the repetition of ‘attention’ there.

The violence of her reaction was surprising. Her whole body leaned in the zebra-shaped dress, and her breasts pressed together like round clenched fists in the V of her neckline.

I’m off to the gym.

Thanks for being here.

Note: the first quote is The Moving Target. The rest are from the second book in the series, The Drowning Pool.

Buy The Moving Target (free delivery, cardboard wrapping)

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Keen? Here’s a list, in order, of the Lew Archer series by Ross Macdonald:

  1. The Moving Target (1949)
  2. The Drowning Pool (1950)
  3. The Way Some People Die (1951)
  4. The Ivory Grin (1952; aka Marked for Murder)
  5. Find a Victim (1954)
  6. The Barbarous Coast (1956)
  7. The Doomsters (1958)
  8. The Galton Case (1959)
  9. The Wycherly Woman (1961)
  10. The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
  11. The Chill (1964)
  12. The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)
  13. Black Money (1966)
  14. The Instant Enemy (1968)
  15. The Goodbye Look (1969)
  16. The Underground Man (1971)
  17. Sleeping Beauty (1973)
  18. The Blue Hammer (1976)

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Book Bore.

Guy Nicholls, writer and book bore.