A strong ending caps what is otherwise a diffuse and disappointing tale of misspent love, runaway greed, and multiple murder. Lew Archer, in his debut appearance, signs up to look for a missing millionaire named Ralph Sampson, and in tracking that quarry he travels through a Southern California version of Dante’s Inferno—a realm where lost souls writhe under a hot, unforgiving sun. This world, of course, will be familiar to readers of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald’s Virgilian predecessors. Among its denizens are Sampson’s emotionally and physically crippled young wife, his alluring but aimless daughter, a cult leader who half-believes his own doggerel, an aging screen star who turns to astrology when her beauty starts to fade, a golden-boy war hero who can’t quite fit into a peacetime role, a honky-tonk piano player who can’t catch a break (and who doesn’t deserve to), and several others. The characters are incisively drawn, but there are too many of them, each with a sad and convoluted story to tell. As a result, the plot fails to yield a dense weave of meaning of the kind that would mark the later Archer novels. Macdonald’s prose misfires here as well, throwing off empty similes and leaden turns of phrase; it would improve greatly in subsequent books. In sum, The Moving Target is a rough sketch of much finer things to come.
[ADDENDUM: While scanning the Web for material on The Moving Target, I learned that J. Kingston Pierce—all-around mystery fiction maven and chief chronicler at the wonderful Rap Sheet blog—had written a brief remembrance of his initial encounter with the book. As it happens, the maiden Lew Archer adventure was the first detective novel that Pierce read, and it seems to have left him with a taste for gritty, gut-punching fare. The book stood out as being “a vigorous, thoughtful, often compassionate tale of love and greed with an ending that questioned whether anyone was truly trustworthy,” he writes. Pierce was a better, more mature young reader than I was. My introduction to the detective genre came via the adventures of Encyclopedia Brown (boy detective!) and the Three Investigators, and it was quite a few years before my reading expanded much beyond formal puzzle tales in the tradition of Agatha Christie.]