Alex Massie

Dick, Macdonald, Leonard (& Adam Gopnik too)

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Readers with elephantine memories may recall a discussion on the merits of not-reading and on Oneupmanship. With regard to that latter cause, I present The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, reviewing the Library of America's new and handsome edition of four Philip K Dick novels:

While he served a fairly long apprenticeship—a series of almost unreadable realist working-class novels that he wrote in the fifties are now back in print—and struggled to make money, from the time “The Man in the High Castle” won a Hugo Award, in 1963, he was famous, admired, and read. He wasn’t reviewed on the front page of the Times Book Review, but so what? Reading his life—either in the reflective French version, by Emmanuel Carrère, or in the thorough and intelligent American one, by Lawrence Sutin—one has a sense not of a man of thwarted ambition but, rather, of a man burning up with ideas and observations who found in a pop form the perfect vehicle for expressing them.

It is possible that I do Mr Gopnik a disservice (the emphasis above is added by me of course), but reading this passage you would not think, would you, that Monsieur Carrere's biography is available in English? Mr Gopnik's French is pretty good and it's quite likely, perhaps even probable, that he read the book in French. The point is, however, that even if he didn't he's quite happy to give the impression that he did. Which is splendid.

Still, to be more gracious, it's a worthy piece that I enjoyed (and not just because I'm currently reading Mr Dick for the first time and, consequently, feeling as though I should have been doing this, oh, 20 years ago).

One other thing. Mr Gopnik writes of genre fiction that:

Since genre writing can support only one genius at a time—and no genre writer ever becomes just a good writer; it’s all prophet or all hack—the guy is usually resented by his peers and their partisans even as the establishment hails him. No one hates the rise of Elmore Leonard so much as a lover of Ross Macdonald.

Crikey. You mean there are people who think Elmore Leonard superior to Ross Macdonald? I suppose there must be. But Leonard has always seemed a little too brash, a little too easily seduced by flashiness and a touch too flippant to be taken quite so seriously as Macdonald.

Some folk like to claim that Macdonald passed Hammet and Chandler. This will not, I think, quite do. It's true that Macdonald plots better than Chandler, but, fine fellow though Lew Archer is, he doesn't quite stick around in the memory in the manner that Marlowe, Spade and the Continental Op do. Yet Macdonald is, I think, the finest craftsman to have mined that seam in 60 years. I realise, of course, that Leonard's greater range, or his determination to escape some of the shackles of the genre could be used to put him ahead of Macdonald; for myself I still prefer Macdonald's quiet excellence to Leonard's attention-seeking finery.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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