Friday, 17 February 2012

Forgotten Book: A Collection of Reviews

Something a bit different for today's Forgotten Book. Today others are focusing on Donald Westlake, but as it's a long time since I read one of his books (the wonderful novel on which that great movie Point Blank was based) I've opted for a book by another American, who was at least as talented as Westlake. It's a slim volume by an author who, long after his death, remains well known and well regarded. But this particular book is itself unfamiliar to most, being produced (I think exclusively, but I stand to be corrected on this) as a signed limited edition. It's A Collection of Reviews by Ross Macdonald.

Macdonald was one of the finest of all writers of private eye novels. I've enjoyed several of them, though I don't count myself as an expert. My favourite of those I've read is The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which is very good. On the whole, I think his wife, the brilliant Margaret Millar, was a superior writer, and her books were certainly more varies. But Macdonald was still very good.

This collection covers a wide range of subjects, starting with A.E. Murch's history of the genre, which includes "a youthful likeness of the lady I love" - nicely put! He is rather more cutting about Barzun and Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime, a massive tome which I really like - but with countless reservations. Macdonald doesn't like it all, and much of his criticism is understandable, even to someone who sees many more positives in a book which does, at least, comment on countless books that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Macdonald is most comfortable writing about someone with whose work he is in sympathy, like James M. Cain, whose work he analyses splendidly. As he says, in Double Indemnity, Cain shows he knows how to "dispense with everything inessential". It is quite a skill, that's for sure. Overall, despite its brevity, this book is a thoughtful and interesting read, and you can tell that Macdonald must have been a thoughtful and very interesting man.


Ed Gorman said...

I take your point about Margaret Millar being a better writer than her husband Ross. I got to know her somewhat during the last years of her life during a dozen or so lengthy phone calls. I gently suggested that to her one time and she got very angry and then hurt. Obviously I never said that again.

BVLawson said...

Thanks for featuring this, Martin. I love Ross Macdonald, too, and am also certainly no expert. But I would love to read his thoughts on other writers. I'll see if I can track this down.

J F Norris said...

I'll have to find this book just to read his take on Barzun & Taylor's amassed opinions on detective and crime fiction. A Catalog of Crime is a work I have big problems with myself. Such snobbery at times. Ugh. No surprise to me that MacDonald found in Cain a sympatico writer.