Many people consider Ross MacDonald third only to Raymond Chandler and Dashielle Hammett when it comes to the hard-boiled genre of fiction. Given my love for those authors and my love of the genre, I was actually a little disappointed by The Moving Target.
Which is not to say that I disliked the book. I enjoyed The Moving Target well enough. It’s just that there wasn’t anything particularly exceptional about it. My favorite authors in the hardboiled genre, including Hammett, Chandler, David Goodis and Richard Stark all blew me away the first time I read them. In the case of Chandler, I had actually forgotten how great an author he was until I read Playback recently. Reading that book I immediately remembered exactly why I had fallen in love with Chandler’s writing all of those years ago and why he is rightly considered a master of the genre.
MacDonald is widely considered the heir to the legacy left by Chandler and Hammett so I seem to be in the minority here. The Moving Target was MacDonald’s first book staring detective Lew Archer so it’s possible that MacDonald’s style evolved. sadly, there wasn’t enough in this first book to spark my interest in reading further.
The Moving Target hits all of the plot-points that reader’s of Chandler will be familiar with. A private detective is brought in to track down a missing family member (in this case the client’s husband, a wealthy oil tycoon), the subsequent investigation leads the detective from one crime to another involving an expanding cast of shady characters ultimately incriminating someone close to the victim. It’s possible that this sort of plot has become so iconic that it feels by the numbers to the modern reader where it might have been novel at the time of its publication. But that’s where I come back to the writing.
Chandler’s plots are so convoluted that he himself couldn’t always keep them straight but, in the end, his writing carried the day. MacDonald’s writing is engaging enough and I ultimately enjoyed the book, but I’m really damning him with faint praise here. In a genre where style is everything, MacDonald’s writing is merely serviceable and that’s not enough to keep me coming back for more.