Lew Archer travels far and wide to chart the many past sins and many present ills of the Blackwell family. He logs untold air miles on trips from his base in Los Angeles to Malibu, up the coast; to San Francisco and elsewhere in California; to Lake Tahoe, in Nevada; and to Guadalajara, in Mexico. But, as usually happens during his investigative journeys, he finds that the distance between past and present—between where folks come from and where they get into trouble—is alarmingly short.
Harriet Blackwell, a few months shy of her 25th birthday, when she will inherit a fortune and attain a sort of independence, runs off with a struggling artist and apparent ne’er-do-well named Burke Damis. Her father, Colonel Mark Blackwell, hires Archer to investigate the mysterious interloper, and Archer (more shrink than sleuth) right away intuits that the colonel has given Harriet too much possessive attention and too little genuine love. Not that Damis doesn’t warrant scrutiny; Archer, on his intra-state and cross-border peregrination, connects that man to at least two killings. Intersecting the detective’s path at multiple points, meanwhile, is an old hearse painted with white and black stripes. The vehicle, operated by a crew of vagabond surfers, turns out to contain a major clue in the murder puzzle, and it does double-duty as an image of a civilization that’s gone out-of-kilter—a civilization in which people of every stripe have lost their sense of organic order. (When a funeral wagon so easily becomes a beach-cruising fun-in-the-sun car, can anything be sacred?) In modern America, and in Southern California especially, no one seems able to map the eternal verities of life, love, and death to a meaningful set of coordinates. Which may be why Archer, in the end, must venture to Mexico a second time in order to achieve resolution.
Macdonald, as if acting out a repetition-compulsion, circles back the same theme again and again throughout his work. In the world that he maps out in the Archer saga, murder is always a close-knit family affair, and truth invariably lies buried on the family compound, waiting for a sensitive, weary shamus to come along who knows where to dig. Practice makes perfect, though, and in this mid-career masterpiece Macdonald enacts his chosen theme brilliantly.