Saturday, August 29, 2015

Not So Hard: Meet Me at the Morgue (1953), by Ross Macdonald

Nearly twenty years ago, in 1952, I was so badly crippled by gout that I was housebound in a wheelchair for months; wrote a whole book, a not very good book (Meet Me at the Morgue) with a not very good title, when all I could move was my fingers....

Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, 6 December 1971 (from Meanwhile There Are Letters)

The conventional wisdom long has been that Kenneth Millar's Ross Macdonald mysteries have a significant break in 1958/59, when Millar published novels The Doomsters and, especially, The Galton Case. Previous to that time the RM mysteries were more Raymond Chandler imitations, so this view goes, but at this point they become true Ross Macdonalds, concerned with exploring psychology and generational dysfunction, with Macdonald's series detective, Lew Archer, becoming less of a tough guy and more of a family therapist. While there's obviously a lot to this binary view, I think it can be overdrawn, as Millar had been making moves away from the Hammett-Chandler hard-boiled school for some time prior to the late 1950s.

When Kenneth Millar published the non-series novel Meet Me at the Morgue in 1953 he had already produced between 1949 and 1952 a string of four Lew Archer novels: The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die and The Ivory Grin. According to Tom Nolan's biography of Millar, Meet Me at the Morgue was meant to be the a "Kenneth Millar" crime novel, the idea being to alternate it with the Ross Macdonalds.  There would be a new series character, one Howard Cross, and the series was not to be "hard-boiled."

This plan for a new series never materialized, however, nor was the novel credited to "Kenneth Millar," but rather to "John Ross Macdonald."  Yet Meet Me at the Morgue remains particularly interesting today as an early attempt to break out of the confines of the Fifties hard-boiled crime fiction aesthetic.

"As the tough style grew dumber and more brutal after Spillane, and as [New York Times mystery critic Anthony] Boucher continued to hail Macdonald as the successor of Hammett and Chandler, Millar tried to make his books less violent and more individualized, and (not so incidentally) to distance himself from Chandler," writes Tom Nolan in his fascinating biography (one of the best yet written about a mystery writer).

The game is afoot!
Meet Me at the Morgue has not a private eye as its sleuth, but rather an unremarkable California county probation officer named Howard ("Howie") Cross.  One of Cross's clients, Fred Miner--a World War Two veteran and chauffeur to a wealthy family, the Johnsons--is suspected of having kidnapped the young son of the family, Jamie Johnson.

Several years earlier, Miner was convicted of a drunk driving hit-and-run fatality, his victim never having been identified to this day, but the Johnsons kept him in their employ.  Is Miner, a war hero, now such a rotten apple that he would stoop to kidnapping?  Cross doesn't think so, and tries to get to the bottom of the whole affair.  If you think Miner's previous hit-and-run case may be implicated somehow, you may  be on to something!

I think it's a shame Macdonald himself so disparaged Meet Me at the Morgue to Edudora Welty, but Welty had been heaping boundless praise on his latest books, like The Underground Man (1971), as not mere mystery but "literature," so he may have been especially self-deprecatory about his earlier crime tales. The truth is, in my view, that Morgue is a superb fifties crime novel with a fast-paced narrative, economical but interesting character studies, enjoyable writing (Macdonald's love of simile is much in evidence) and  a well-manipulated plot that, in the manner of Agatha Christie, certainly kept me off kilter until very late in the book.  This bundle of gifts is nothing for which an author need apologize to his readers.

A tough mystery about a
kidnapping that led to

Pocket Books edition of
Meet Me at the Morgue
In his RM biography Tom Nolan provides interesting background detail on the writing of Meet Me at the Morgue, highlighting the challenges a putative "hard-boiled" writer faced in the world of fifties crime fiction publishing.  RM's publisher, Alfred Knopf, was enthusiastic about Morgue, telling Millar, "I like it immensely; I think it is one of your best."  Morgue was even sold for serialization to Cosmopolitan, quite a lucrative coup.

However, paperback publisher Pocket Books threw a wrench into the works when, in an assessment of the novel, it complained that Millar

is a very good writer and a fairly capable plotter, but for some reason all the books lack the kind of punch which should go with the sort of story he writes.  Maybe the author is just too nice a person, but his bad characters somehow or other aren't believably bad.  The sharp contrast between good and evil, so noticeable in Chandler's books and so important in this kind of story, is simply missing, at least for me. I wonder if some of your [Knopf's] experts couldn't somehow sharpen both the characters and the action.

too nice a person for all that
rough stuff: Ross Macdonald
I love Pocket's notion that RM might be too nice a person to write hard-boiled crime fiction.  (This is not a problem from which Chandler suffered!)  RM was not impressed with Pocket's advice. He wrote Knopf a five-page letter defending his writing and distinguishing it from Chandler's:

I think that perhaps a main difficulty arises from Pocket Books' assumption that this is a hardboiled novel, which it is not, and more specifically that this is an imitation of Chandler which fails for some reason to come off.  I must confess I was pleased with the characterization--the characters are more human than in anything I've done, closer to life--and more than pleased with the plot.  Plot is important to me....For [Chandler] any old plot will do....

His subject is the evilness of evil, his most characteristic achievement the short vivid scene of conflict between (conventional) evil and (what he takes to be) good....I can't accept Chandler's vision of good and evil.  It is conventional to the point of old-maidishness, anti-human to the point of frequent sadism (Chandler hates all women and most men, reserving only lovable oldsters, boys and Marlowe for his affection), and the mind behind it, for all its enviable imaginative force, is uncultivated and second-rate....My literary range greatly exceeds his, and my approach will not wear out so fast.

....I can write a sample of the ordinary hard-boiled mystery with my eyes closed.  But preferring as I do to keep my eyes open, I've spent several years developing it into a form of my own, which nobody can imitate.  When the tough school dies its inevitable death I expect to be going strong, twenty or thirty books from now....

If anyone has ever felt, as I do, that Chandler unjustly disparaged Millar's RM novels in a couple of his famously splenetic letters, Millar certainly paid Chandler back for it in full in this impassioned and eloquent epistle. ("His subject is the evilness of evil"--quite a clever putdown, I think, and I am a Chandler fan!)

The evilness of evilRaymond Chandler

Millar's whole letter, about 1200 words, is reprinted in Nolan's biography and is, I understand, included in the new Library of America omnibus of RM novels.  It's a valuable document in mystery genre history, a revelation of the early pushback the traditional hard-boiled was receiving from one of its putative practitioners, still included today as the third in the hard-boiled triumvirate: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

Incidentally, Millar also had a go-round with the publisher about the title of the novel. Millar's title was Message from Hell, which Knopf nixed, notes Nolan. (I can't blame them.)  Pocket wanted the trite The Convenient Corpse, which Millar rejected.  Nolan says that Millar "halfheartedly" suggested Meet Me at the Morgue, which Knopf thereupon accepted.  Characters in the novel do in fact meet each other at the morgue, and certainly the alliteration is so meticulously marked you won't forget the title anytime soon!


  1. Plot is important to me....

    This, to me, is the key point that sets Ross MacD - as Jean-Patrick Manchette called him - apart from the other two "Big Three" of the hardboiled school and one of the reasons why he has always been popular with lovers of more traditional crime fiction (and conversely why the notoriously plot-adverse French critics have rejected him for so long) He put the P in plot in a genre that had always regarded it at best as a secondary matter.

    1. Yup, Ross loved plot. I've just read two more by him and the one plot is so dense I think surely he must have diagrammed it all beforehand!

  2. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any Ross McDonald. It sounds like I'd prefer the earlier ones - I'm not too thrilled by the idea of the detective as family therapist! So where's the best place to start with early Ross McDonald?

    1. I would recommend The Ferguson Affair, The Ivory Grin and Meet Me at the Morgue. Among his later books you might try Black Money, but even that one may get too much into emotions for you. It's quite good though. I still have some unread myself.