Before he won high-brow acclaim for his brooding, Oedipally themed dramas of life on the far frontiers of postwar American affluence, Macdonald produced a series of fairly derivative California private-eye tales. This title was the third of those apprentice works, all of which featured—as did the better, later novels—Lew Archer as a Hollywood shamus who presides gloomily over the unraveling of other people’s lives. Archer’s early cases, appearing in print at a time when Raymond Chandler was still writing up the adventures of Philip Marlowe, have a hand-me-down quality, as if Marlowe had more wayward-daughter and wandering-husband jobs than he could accommodate on his own.
This time out, Archer calls on an old woman in Santa Monica and agrees to track down her only child, a hospital nurse named Galatea Lawrence. Galley, as people call her, has a reputation for being a bit restless and maybe a bit man-crazy; there are rumors that she ran off with a hoodlum whom she met through her work. In following her trail, Archer hits many points on the Golden State compass, from a ticky-tacky ranch house down south in Palm Springs to a seedy piano bar up north in San Francisco. Along the way, he encounters drug pushers and drug addicts, jealous husbands and querulous wives, slick criminals and crude lawmen. Complications and coincidences multiply, but they don’t add up to much—that is, until the end, when Macdonald delivers a strong (albeit predictable) finish.
Macdonald’s biographer, Tom Nolan, calls Some People Die “a knockout, a humdinger … a genre classic.” Nolan praises the author’s use of classical references (Galatea, for example, was the name given to the figure in Greek mythology whom Pygmalion draws forth from a block of stone), as well as his use of sea imagery to evoke a sense of depth—and of death. Scene by scene, though, the story leaves the reader sailing on choppy waters.