It has become a commonplace among Hollywood producers that detective stories don’t make good movies in the present age. The reason, as it has been explained to me, is that the hero is not the center of the tale. He is an observer, largely unaffected and unchanged by the events he uncovers and the mystery he solves. It’s a role no modern movie star wants to play. Detective stories, the thinking goes, are better suited to television series, which are, strange to say, more like real life in this respect: The events change, but the characters remain pretty much the same.
Ross Macdonald—the author of the series of novels featuring Southern California private eye Lew Archer—understood this aspect of his genre down to the ground. He has been hailed more than once as among the greatest American mystery writers. William Goldman, who adapted Macdonald’s “The Moving Target” for the wonderful 1966 Paul Newman film “Harper,” called the Archer books “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”
This seems to me to overshoot the mark. Macdonald had nothing like the dazzling literary talent that immortalizes Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Nor did he possess the slam-bang mythmaking genius of Mickey Spillane, whose terrific Mike Hammernovels are loved by readers and despised by critics for their harsh violence, blunt prose and politically conservative worldview.
But in fully embracing the observer nature of the fictional private eye, Macdonald refined the genre to the point where it became a rich and fascinating comment upon itself. This endears his books to critics and other intellectual types who like to think about such things. More important, it gives his stories a vitality and depth that keep them readable and relevant more than 50 years after they were written.
You can read the whole thing here.