This time last year I was serving as the program chair for a great mystery conference we have here in Indiana, Magna Cum Murder. (This year's conference is being held in Indianapolis on October 25, 26, and 27, and there's still time to register.) At Magna, they often pick a classic mystery as the conference book. All attendees are encouraged to read it, at least one panel is devoted to it, and the movie version is shown, if one exists. I chose The Moving Target, the first Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald. (Yes, it does say "John Macdonald" on the first edition cover. Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, didn't settle on Ross for his pen name until the fifth or six book.) I selected that early book, rather than one of Macdonald's later classics, because there is a movie version, 1966's Harper, starring Paul Newman.
After making my decision, I reread The Moving Target for the first time in perhaps thirty years. The first few chapters made me glad I'd picked it, the last few less so. But what struck me most about the novel was its close relationship with another first number in a famous series, The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's first Philip Marlowe novel. It's so close, in fact, that I'm convinced Macdonald reread The Big Sleep before laying out The Moving Target, if he didn't have a copy open on his lap as he wrote.
I'm not going to summarize the two plots here. I'll save that arduous task for when I expand this post into my doctoral dissertation (later to be an Edgar-nominated critical work and, later still, a direct-to-DVD cartoon). I'll confine myself to citing ten examples to support my contention that, in many ways, The Moving Target (TMT) is a play on and an inversion of The Big Sleep (TBS).
- 1 -
In both books, the PI is called in to straighten out a problem for a wealthy family whose senior representative is an invalid: General Sternwood in TBS and Elaine Sampson in TMT. Both these characters are heartsick over the loss of a pseudo son, the general's runaway drinking buddy and Elaine's killed-in-action stepson.
- 2 -
The characters of the fathers of these two families and their respective daughters is an example of Macdonald's inversion of Chandler's plot. In TBS, General Sternwood is wise and his daughter is wild. In TMT, Ralph Sampson (Elaine's missing husband) is wild and his daughter is wise beyond her years.
- 3 -
Both plots feature rackets complicated by and eventually undone by other crimes. In TBS, a smut book racket is undone by a blackmail play. In TMT, a smuggling racket is undone by a kidnapping.
- 4 -
In both books, the initial crime seems vague and phony: the too polite blackmail of the Sternwoods and the kidnapping of Ralph Sampson that might not be one.
- 5 -
In both cases, a shadowy underworld figure appears to be pulling the strings. Each has a last name that's a vague classical allusion, Eddie Mars in TBS and Dwight Troy in TMT. Both own or have owned a gambling joint, and both are gray-haired.
- 6 -
Both books feature dens of iniquity: the house where the wild Sternwood daughter does drugs in TBS becomes the red, zodiac-themed bedroom of the wild father in TMT.
- 7 -
Both the Sternwoods and the Sampsons employ a lovesick young man whose infatuation with a drug user will get him killed (and, again, the names are similar): Owen Taylor, a chauffeur, in TBS and Alan Taggert, a pilot, in TMT. Here, Macdonald's inversion of the Chandler model is again apparent. Taylor chases a Sternwood daughter while Taggert is chased by Sampson's.
- 8 -
The supporting casts have other parallel characters, including two hard luck little men with criminal pasts whose devotion to the wrong women will end them: Harry Jones in TBS and Eddie Lassiter in TMT.
- 9 -
And in both novels, the PI has a friend with either a current or past connection to the local district attorney's office, and, yet again, the names are similar: Bernie Ohls (TBS) and Albert "Bertie" Graves (TMT).
- 10 -
The final link is another name clue, in some respects the most obvious one Macdonald planted. The wild daughter from TBS is named Carmen. The not-so-wild daughter from TMT is named Miranda. Get it?
A coincidence? I think not. In fact, I rest my case.