Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Are You Hip To The Jive?

I've enjoyed most of the output of Dash Hammett and Raymond Chandler, while managing to avoid the clinkers, if there are any. Out of curiosity I recently read one of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels. Those three gentlemen are often mentioned in the same breath by critics. Let's get this out of the way right now: I liked it a lot.

Ross MacDonald turns out to be the “main pseudonym” of “American-Canadian” crime writer Kenneth Millar. Some of these guys act like they are running from the police themselves, the way they use multiple aliases and addresses. To say “American-Canadian” might be gilding the lily for a guy who was born, grew up, worked, and died in California. It's a free country, though, so I'm willing to let all of that slide.

I read “The Galton Case,” and it was a good place to start. It comes right in the middle of the long series of Lew Archer books. A lot of the action takes place in mid-1950s San Francisco, and there are Beatniks involved. As was customary in the Fifties and Sixties, new forms of artistic expression come in for some gentle ribbing.

The detective visits a jazz bar at one point, and he hangs around long enough to develop an opinion about the band. The small combo was “playing something advanced.” Did Mr. Archer understand it? “I didn't have my slide-rule with me.”

There may have been an age cut-off for this kind of thing. (Mr. MacDonald was born in 1915, so he was forty or so when he wrote the book.) Maybe people born before a certain year could not get hip to the jive of 1950s jazz and literature (poetry included). Same for the 1960s. Look for the video of the Rolling Stones on the Dean Martin TV show. Old Deano and all of his Rat Pack friends fancied themselves to be genuine swingers in a world of squares, but this new mess swung a bit too hard for an old warhorse like Dean. I'll bet that something similar was happening with Mr. MacDonald (Millar).

The musicians themselves, of course, were hip. They got it. They “smiled and and nodded like space jockeys passing in the night.” (How do you like that double-barreled dog-whistle about drug use?)

The melody was “done to death.” The pianist “bent over his keyboard . . . like a mad scientist.” The detective was forced to listen to multiple songs. Before long, “another tune failed to survive the operation.”

Before long our detective is discussing the artistic fine points of the age with an effete, but sympathetically rendered, Beat poet. “You can't make a Hamlet without breaking egos,” says the poet. But you could, evidently, still write a novel in the mid-1950s that had its feet planted firmly in the Thirties and Forties.

No complaints from me, though. Just an observation. “The Galton Case” is a good read.

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