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The Moving Target - Ross Macdonald

More early Macdonald: the first of the Lew Archer novels.  This is a California noir in the Hammett-Chandler tradition.  The prose is bleak and hard, like the landscape, yet it gives rise to florid palm trees of metaphor  The cynical patter snaps.  Diogenes would find more than the climate familiar; there is nary an honest man in sight.

 

I think this is one of the best American crime novels.  The plotting is much tighter than Chandler, and the characters deeper.  The ending not only yields surprise after surprise, but completes a panorama of a California after the war grown rootless and corrupt.  All of noir is cynical, but Macdonald connects more dots.

 

 

(mild spoilers ahead)

 

The moving target refers not just to Lew Archer's target, ever changing as he pursues a missing millionaire.  Happiness, the target of all the major characters, floats just beyond reach, embodied in ungraspable lovers, fading careers, freedom somewhere just down the highway.  All of the major characters of any maturity are rootless--children of the midwest, born on the wrong side of the tracks, who moved to California seeking stardom, wealth, and a social standing denied them where they were born.  For all of them, initial success fades, and they have nothing to fall back on except increasingly desperate and illegal schemes to amass a little more wealth.  They all, from the career criminals and addicts to the attorneys and even the millionaire victim, share the same character flaws.   Crime spreads through them like an epidemic, and even the most seemingly upright are shown at the last to have no resistance.  (Except maybe for Lew Archer, of course.)  Macdonald is very clear in tying this first to the impact of the war, and second to the characters' backgrounds: born in poverty, leaving friends and family behind to establish a new life in a purgatory where paradise is always in sight but just out of reach in the houses of the wealthy up on hills or overlooking the beach.