After weeks of losing myself in Thomas Pynchon’s extraordinary Against the Day, I felt in need of a literary palate cleanser. So, on my way out to a day-job trip to Munich, I grabbed an old copy of Ross Macdonald’s The Moving Target which was sitting on my bookshelves. I’m not a great re-reader of books – not through any point of principle, but just because I struggle to keep up with all the new stuff that I find myself buying. But I was drawn back to Macdonald, who I hadn’t read for a few years, partly by a recent TV showing of Harper, the fine film version of this book (Paul Newman changed the name of Macdonald’s PI, Lew Archer, because he wanted to play characters whose names began with ‘H’. Hollywood, eh?).
I have to confess that I’d half-forgotten how good Macdonald was. This is very much Chandler territory, geographically and spiritually, but Macdonald’s possibly even better than Chandler at revealing the hollowness underpinning the Californian dream (somehow, having spent my youth reading these books, it’s not entirely surprising to find that California now has, quite literally, run out of money and is pinning its economic hopes on, um, marijuana). He’s at least Chandler’s equal, too, when it comes to coining a phrase or conjuring up a scene or character in a few choice words. You know you’re in good, if not exactly safe, hands when, in the first few paragraphs, you’re told: ‘The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money’.
I was reminded, re-reading this, that Warren Zevon was a massive fan, and later friend, of Macdonald’s. It’s a pity they never formally collaborated, as Zevon did with writers like Carl Hiassen and Thomas Mcguane. Their joint take on California would have been something to hear. I haven’t found an excuse to write about the late, great Zevon for a while, so I might come back to that thought. In the meantime, I’ve now got all those other Macdonald books to go back to. The palate cleanser may just have become the main course.