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.

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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)

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Better than illicit sex. Honey on toast. Chocolate and beer.

Maybe not chocolate and beer.

Sweet is the unputdownable book in which sod all happens.

…life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history and fiction.

Thriller writer Raymond Chandler said if you’re ever stuck on what happens next, get someone to walk in with a gun in their hand.

Well, Pym’s self-effacingly unattached protagonist Mildred Lathbury does it with a pot of tea.

But first, why Excellent [Women]? Try shrewd, modest, appreciative, funny.

Here she is on spaghetti, being late, eggs, and, of course, the nectar of the gods.

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite someone eating spaghetti?

She’s not wrong. Try it naked in front of a mirror. Not a good look.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she smiled, and I heard myself murmuring politely that I had arrived too early, as if it were really my fault that she was late.

So true. Like apologising when someone bumps into you, or drops one.

… I had a fresh egg to poach… delving for it in the bubbly water where the white separated from the yolk and waved about like a sea anemone.

Gripping stuff. 1952. Rationing. Egg. Fresh. Indulgent. Can make a day.

[with a distressed friend]… she stammered in a burst of tears. I was astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.

Love the astonished there. Love the irrelevantly. Don’t wave it about like that Milly, it might go off.

The tea was made now and it was as strong as it had been weak on the day Helena left him. I wondered why it was that tea could vary so, even when one followed exactly the same method of making it. Could the emotional state of the maker have something to do with it?

Yep. It’s my Oolong, doctor.

Thanks for being here.

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The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)

No, no, no – wait, wait, wait!

Just because you think you might’ve had enough Chandler doesn’t mean you’re not wrong.

Picture this. A beauty so elegant, so divine, she renders her beholder invisible.

The old bar waiter came drifting by and glanced softly at my weak Scotch and water. I shook my head and he bobbed his white thatch, and right then a dream walked in.

Indolent set-up. Slow pace and the not-a-lot-going-on established with the old bar waiter, the drifting, the glanced softly, the shaking and bobbing of heads, the clink of ice, the tick-tick of cocktail sticks.

It seemed to me for an instant that there was no sound in the bar, that the sharpies stopped sharping and the drunk on the stool stopped burbling away, and it was just like the conductor taps on his music stand and raises his arms and holds them poised.

Her arrival sucks the sound out of the room. Like a held breath. Neat alliteration and rhythm in sharpies stopped sharping. Even the burbling drunk notices the change in atmospheric pressure. Chandler’s four ands in the sentence ratchet up the suspense to the point where all movement stops. Is poised.

What an entrance. Okay, catch your breath. You’ll need it.

She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailor-made with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat.

Throat is so much more carnal than neck, isn’t it.

Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were cornflower blue, a rare colour, and the lashes were long and almost too pale.

Savour the delicacy in pale (twice), gold (twice), fairy princess, small, nestle, nest.

I’m thinking bird of paradise.

And cornflower blue? Back in a bit. Need to lie on the lawn.

She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove…

Is anyone else hot in here?

… and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter will ever pull out a table for me.

Waiter-waiter, table-table, pulled-pull, out-out. Lovely.

She sat down and slipped the gloves under the strap of her bag and thanked him with a smile so gentle, so exquisitely pure, that he was damn nearly paralysed by it. She said something to him in a very low voice. He hurried away, bending forward. There was a guy who really had a mission in life.

Like the determined hurried and bending forward. Like a blackbird trying to get there before it gets there.

And then the coup de grâce we’ve been waiting for.

I stared. She caught me staring. She lifted her glance half an inch and I wasn’t there anymore. But wherever I was I was holding my breath.

Thanks for being here.

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The King in Yellow by Raymond Chandler (1950)

Okay, okay – last Chandler nibble for a bit. The indignity of being shot at.

“He shot at me,” he repeated quietly. “With a gun. This gun. I’m tender to bullets. He missed me, but suppose he didn’t? I like my stomach the way it is, with just one way in and one way out.”

Me, too. Only one of mine’s bigger than the other.

Keep dodging those bullets, gals and boys.

Thanks for being here.

(The King in Yellow is the second of third and last story in Pearls are a Nuisance.)

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Finger Man by Raymond Chandler (1950)

Fancy a quick one?

Here’s the maestro on suspense – and its release.

The ball drifted along the groove, dipped past one of the bright metal diamonds, slid down the flank of the wheel and chattered along the tines beside the numbers. Movement went out of it suddenly with a dry click. It fell next to double-zero, in red twenty-seven. The wheel was motionless.

The croupier took up his rake and slowly pushed the two packets of bills across, added them to the stake, pushed the whole thing off the field of play.

Canales put his wallet back in his breast pocket, turned and walked slowly back to the door, went through it.

I took my cramped fingers of the top of the railing, and a lot of people broke for the bar.

A tantalising rhythm. You can see that ball on its slow whimsical journey. And that … and walked slowly back to the door, went through it releases us.

Love the breaking for the bar, too. Makes my elbows twitch.

Thanks for being here.

(Finger Man is the second of three stories in Pearls are a Nuisance.)

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Pearls are a Nuisance by Raymond Chandler (1950)

Sticking with Chandler’s style for a few short posts.

Here’s the story’s hero trying to be tough and in control but it not working very well. One’s got to smile.

“I am the fiancé of Miss Ellen Macintosh,” I told him coldly. “I am informed that you tried to kiss her.”

He took another step towards me and I another towards him. “Whatddaya mean – tried?” he sneered.

I led sharply with my right and it landed flush on his chin. It seemed to be a good solid punch, but it scarcely moved him. I then put two hard left jabs into his neck and landed a second hard right at the side of his rather wide nose. He snorted and hit me in the solar plexus.

I bent over and took hold of the room with both hands and spun it. When I had it nicely spinning I gave it a full swing and hit myself on the back of the head with the floor. This made me lose my balance temporarily and while I was thinking about how to regain it a wet towel began to slap at my face and I opened my eyes…

Love even the floor joining in to give him a bashing. But our have-a-go hero gets to his feet and tries again.

“Damn you, Eichelberger!” I said and hit him with all my strength on the side of his jaw. He shook his head and his eyes seemed annoyed. I delivered three more punches to his face and jaw while he was still shaking his head.

“So you wanta play for keeps!” he yelled and took hold of the bed and threw it at me.

I dodged the corner of the bed, but in doing so I moved a little too quickly and lost my balance and pushed my head about four inches in the baseboard under the window.

A wet towel began to slap at my face. I opened my eyes…

You got to feel sorry for the guy through your smiling. That unassuming style of Chandler begs our sympathy. 

And I just love, and his eyes seemed annoyed. Know that look too well. Glad it’s not just me.

Thanks for being here.

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