A promising start and a satisfying finish bracket an often tedious merry-go-round of comings and goings, all of them occurring in and around Las Cruces, California. That’s where private eye Lew Archer, serving in his occasional role as a wandering bard of crime and social dysfunction, veers into one of his earliest recorded cases. Traveling from LA to Sacramento, he spots a man in distress on the side of the road. His efforts to help the fellow, a long-haul driver with a fresh gunshot wound and a truck full of liquor, entangle Archer in nasty web of local corruption, marital discord, and murder—plenty of murder. The message, told in Archer’s lyrically jaded voice, appears to be that those idyllic-seeming communities just off the main highway are no less troubled than the big, bad cities where gumshoes like Archer usually roam. Once Archer has loosened every last knot of intrigue, what emerges is an ingeniously concealed and morally resonant story, one whose roots lie in an ill-fated parent-child relationship. What precedes that moment of revelation, however, is a garish blur of characters and situations. The people of Las Cruces are all desperate and cheap, undisciplined and oversexed. In scene after scene, they cross words with Archer or cop an attitude with him; all too frequently, they trade blows with him. It all makes for a very contrived form of storytelling, in which piling up one-damned-thing-after-another takes the place of real narrative progression. In later work, Macdonald would tell his patented tale of dark family romance with a lighter, surer touch.
ROSS MACDONALD. Find a Victim (1954).