I can easily say that I have become something of a Ross Macdonald addict. The first book in the Lew Archer series that I read and was impressed by was The Way Some People Die (the third in the Lew Archer series). That novel was great in terms of plot, superb characterization, and in the evocation of California.
It was my intention to stick to the order in the series, although that is strictly not necessary. However, on a short trip to London some years ago, I bought Archer #13 called Black Money and couldn’t resist delving right into it. I learnt that it Macdonald considered that book his finest achievement, and I agree that Black Money was brilliant. I also learnt later that in some way it was a retelling of The Great Gatsby, a novel Macdonald had a high opinion of, although that was a connect I did not make at the time.
I needed some comfort reads for the month and Macdonald fit the bill perfectly. I ended up reading three this time, and stuck more or less to the order.
Here, I have decided to post short write-ups for each in a single post rather than go in for a lengthy review of the three separately.
So here goes…
The Ivory Grin
This is the fourth novel in the Lew Archer series.
In The Ivory Grin, private detective Lew Archer is paid a visit by a tough woman who calls herself Una Larkin. Una wants Archer to trace her maid Lucy who used to work at her place.
Archer’s immediate instincts are that he is being taken for a ride as Una concocts a cock-and-bull story of why she wants Lucy tailed.
Una refuses to divulge her motives but eventually Archer becomes curious enough to accept the assignment.
Archer follows Lucy into Bella City, a run-down place filled with desolate houses, ramshackle factories, restaurants and cheap motels. It is a place with a clear divide between the affluent and the low income groups.
Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage.
Archer tails Lucy but she is murdered and Archer finds a newspaper clip in her motel room announcing a US$ 5,000 reward for any person who comes forward with information on the whereabouts of a wealthy widow’s son Charles Singleton.
Clearly, these two cases are connected and Lew Archer makes it his mission to find out how.
Meanwhile, Lucy’s boyfriend Alex is arrested for her murder although Archer is not fully convinced.
There are also many characters enter the fray, but one of the most notable is Inspector Brake who is all too keen to arrest Alex and has many sharp exchanges with Archer.
The Ivory Grin is superbly plotted. It is a tale of fear and money and is tightly woven. The dialogue crackles.
Macdonald is also great in his descriptions and evocation of a small time town such as Bella City – the physical and wretched character or lack of character of such places and the pronounced divide between the people based on money and social standing. And the various characters peppered throughout the novel are also richly drawn.
Plus, Lew Archer is a wonderful creation as a detective. What is fascinating is that we don’t know much about him but enough to gauge that he is world weary but compassionate and a man who listens. He is the lens through whom the other characters, who occupy the centrestage, are filtered.
The Barbarous Coast
This is the sixth novel in the Lew Archer series.
Once again, Macdonald has written a complex plot and this time the spotlight is on Hollywood.
Archer is summoned by Clarence Bassett, the manager of an exclusive country club for the wealthy. While he is entering the club he notices a young and hot-tempered man having an altercation with the guard Tony Torres.
Bassett wants Archer to locate the whereabouts of Hester Campbell, a star diver at the club, who is now missing. The hotheaded young man, in the meanwhile, is Hester’s husband from Canada who accuses Bassett of having an affair with her.
Archer subsequently learns that Hester is somehow mixed up with the ‘mob’ and is with Lance Leonard – Tony Torres’ nephew. Tony Torres, a retired boxer, had taken Lance under his wing and trained him as a boxer, before Lance gives him the boot.
The deeper Archer investigates, he realizes that a lot of the developments are somehow tied up to the murder of another young woman Gabrielle Torres a couple of years – a case which never got solved. Gabrielle was also Hester’s good friend.
In addition to this characters, we are introduced to many more – Simon Graff who is a successful filmmaker and a resident of the country club, his wife Isobel Graff, and some mobsters Leroy Frost and Carl Stern.
That’s the basic outline of the plot.
In typical Macdonald style, there are various threads that are woven together to form a complex story. Having said that, while this is still a solid novel, it was not as strong as The Ivory Grin. At one point it felt that there were too many characters and the story sagged a bit especially in the middle. But all in all this was a worthwhile read and I have yet to come across a Macdonald that hasn’t worked.
The writing remains as sharp as ever though…Here is Archer describing Isobel Graff…
A taste of whiskey had changed her mood, as a touch of acid will change the color of blue litmus paper.
And then sometime later, here’s an exchange…
“You are joking. You must want money. You work for money, don’t you?”
“I want it very badly,” I said. “But I can’t take this money. It wouldn’t belong to me, I would belong to it. It would expect me to do things, and I would have to do them.”
The Doomsters is the seventh novel in the Lew Archer series and in a way significant because it is this novel where Macdonald departs from the influence of Chandler and Hammett. In terms of the themes and psychological depth, it certainly felt different from The Ivory Grin and The Barbarous Coast.
One morning Archer gets a visit from Carl Hallman, a man in his thirties. We soon learn that Carl has escaped from a mental asylum where he claims he was committed by his family against his wishes. Carl is not the only one who has escaped though. The other man to flee with him is heroin addict Tom Rica, whom Archer had mentored many years ago.
Carl’s mother committed suicide many years ago, and soon after his father dies of a heart attack the same evening that he had a vicious quarrel with him, his brother Jerry also being present at the time.
His behaviour is what convinces Jerry to confine him in an asylum and he forces Carl’s wife Mildred to sign the papers.
The beginning of this Hallman family history is narrated to us through Carl while in conversation with Archer. Meanwhile, Archer is of the view that Carl needs to go back to the hospital first, and he would carry out the investigation on his behalf outside. Archer even drives him to the hospital but before that Carl manages to hoodwink Archer, steal his car and flee.
We learn that Carl has been spotted on the Hallman family ranch with a gun. It’s the same ranch where his brother Jerry and his wife Zinnie reside. Since, the parents are dead, Jerry and Zinnie stand to gain from the estate.
We also learn that Carl’s wife Mildred is the only one who believes in him and ready to defend him no matter what.
Soon another Hallman is murdered, and the blame for it falls on Carl who is still in hiding.
Archer is convinced that Carl is not the suspect, and sets out to find out how the recent murder is linked to Carl’s parents’ death many years ago. In the process, many skeletons in the Hallman closet begin to tumble out.
That is the bare outline of the story.
It is this novel where Archer’s role also evolves. He is not only a private investigator but also akin to a therapist, always listening but not immediately ready to judge. He understands that there is never a stark black and while, but in fact several shades of grey when it comes to a person’s personality.
In that sense, it is probably more Freudian in tone and plot as compared to his earlier novels, and marks the turning point, as I understand it, in terms of psychological depth, insight and the notion of deep family secrets – themes that recur in the later novels as well.
I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.
I’ll end with another quote…
We passed a small-boat harbor, gleaming white on blue, and a long pier draped with fishermen. Everything was as pretty as a postcard. The trouble with you, I said to myself: you’re always turning over the postcards and reading the messages on the underside. Written in invisible ink, in blood, in tears, with a black border around them, with postage due, unsigned, or signed with a thumbprint.
The Doomsters was another excellent novel in the Lew Archer series and I look forward to the next one in line – The Galton Case – which has touted as one of his best.