by Julia Buckley
I’ve always been a Ross MacDonald fan, and until recently I was content to believe there was no one like him. MacDonald’s style is singular—a blend of a great story, a lonely and moral protagonist, and a powerful use of simile and metaphor that elevate his work to the realm of literature. Many mystery writers today have cited MacDonald as an influence, including Sue Grafton, whose “Santa Teresa” is an homage to MacDonald’s fictionalized version of Santa Barbara.
There has never been a match, for me, to MacDonald’s style. But recently I read my second book in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, and I realized that Johnson’s writing parallels MacDonald’s in many ways.
First, the protagonist: It is true that the lonely detective is a part of the American hard-boiled tradition, but Johnson’s Walt Longmire has a similar kind of lonesomeness to Lew Archer, even though the former lives in the wilds of Wyoming and the latter does his work among the wealthy and elite of California. They both wear their loneliness like a shield, and they reveal very little of themselves to other characters or to the reader. Both men were once married, so they are able to feel the absence of their wives as a reminder of companionship.
In HELL IS EMPTY, the latest Longmire mystery, Walt is asked by his deputy if he’s sure he wants to pursue a dangerous criminal alone. He responds, “Yeah, I’m sure. I’m sure I don’t, but there isn’t anybody else for the job” (Johnson 58).
Similarly, in MacDonald’s great novel THE UNDERGROUND MAN, Lew Archer is approached by a young woman who feels he’s the only person who can solve her dilemma. It is Archer’s day off, but he takes on her task with a shrug: “I’m a private detective. I do these things for a living” (MacDonald 15).
Each detective sees his role as inevitable, and something he must do alone.
My favorite thing about MacDonald’s writing is the way he can take a scene and make it profound with imagery and metaphor—something Johnson has mastered, as well. Here are both narrators, Archer and Longmire, describing fire:
(from THE UNDERGROUND MAN): “I walked toward him, into the skeletal shadow of the sycamore. The smoky moon was lodged in its top, segmented by small black branches. . . . I looked back from the mailbox. Sparks and embers were blowing down the canyon, plunging into the trees behind the house like bright, exotic birds taking the place of the birds that had flown” (MacDonald 40, 52).
(from HELL IS EMPTY): “Lodgepole pines were exploding with the heat, and a crisscross of timber fell down the incline. The darkness lifted long enough to reveal massive logs exploding as the resin inside them reached boiling levels, branches, pine cones and needles swirling in armies of winged fire devils” (Johnson 202).
Both writers take the reader inside the experience with deft language and an immersion in setting—both Santa Barbara and Longmire’s Wyoming forest are prone to forest fires, and so they become a part of the mystery in each novel.
Finally, both detectives have an outlook that is existential but starkly beautiful. Here is Longmire describing his mountains: “Maybe our greatest fears were made clear this high, so close to the cold emptiness of the unprotected skies. Perhaps the voices were of the mountains themselves, whispering in our ears just how inconsequential and transient we really are” (Johnson 123).
And Lew Archer, confronting a suspect: “His heavy gaze came up to my face. He seemed to be trying to read his future in my eyes. I could read it in his: a future of fear and confusion and trouble, resembling his past” (MacDonald 240).
I love the spare and beautiful prose of both writers, honest and poetic as both of their lawmen follow a quest for the truth.
MacDonald has always been a part of my permanent collection; Johnson will now be in that collection, as well.
Johnson, Craig. Hell is Empty. New York: Viking, 2011.
MacDonald, Ross. The Underground Man. New York: Vintage Reprint, 1996. (Original pub date: 1971).