Monday, June 07, 2010

An Oil Spill—And A Legendary Private Eye

In January of 1969, a Union Oil derrick five miles off the Santa Barbara coast blew out, spewing thousands of barrels of oil and gas into the Pacific, blanketing and blackening miles of beaches and killing wildlife.
Among the many outraged locals was a middle-aged writer named Kenneth Millar (1915-1983), better known among admirers of brilliant crime fiction as Ross Macdonald, creator of private-eye Lew Archer, the narrator of what William Goldman would shortly call “the finest detective novels ever written by an American.”
More than forty years after that review ran on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, Goldman’s declaration remains truer than ever. If you’ve never read Macdonald, run to your library or local bookstore or go to Amazon and get a copy of one of his great novels, beautifully written and peopled by characters with dimension—and many, many secrets. My favorite is “The Chill,” and while all the Archer books are excellent, I’d look for ones written after1958, when in “The Doomsters” Macdonald began wedding his complex plots with strong Freudian overtones.
An aside here: the late John Leonard, then at the Book Review, lobbied for that prominent 1969 review, and he knew Goldman was the right critic; Goldman had written the screenplay for 1966’s “Harper,” based on Macdonald’s novel, “The Moving Target.” Lew Archer, whose last name was inspired by Sam Spade’s unlucky partner, Miles Archer, was renamed Lew Harper and played wonderfully by Paul Newman. For more about Macdonald’s fascinating life and work, read Tom Nolan’s superb biography.
Macdonald never forgave the oil companies or lax government officials for what happened to Santa Barbara, and in 1973’s “Sleeping Beauty” he used an oil spill as the dark symbol running through one of his best books. Here’s how Macdonald described the oil catastrophe (quotes lifted from Nolan’s book): The derrick’s pipe looked like “the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood.” The slick looks “like premature night.” People watch the approaching oil “as if they were waiting for the end of the world, or as if the end had come and they would never move again.”
As for that real Santa Barbara spill, Nolan writes “as the weeks wore on, the oil kept oozing, despite the oil’s people’s assurances that everything was okay.”
Doesn’t seem like we’ve learned a hell of a lot in the last forty-one years, does it?


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