Search results for ‘Ross Macdonald’

ROSS MACDONALD. The Moving Target (1949).

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. Moving Target.jpg 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.]

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Posted by on December 6, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel


ROSS MACDONALD. Find a Victim (1954).

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. FindVictim.jpgHis 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.


Posted by on June 5, 2013 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle


ROSS MACDONALD. The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962).

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.

Zebra-StripedPB.jpgHarriet 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.

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Posted by on December 13, 2010 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel, Puzzle


ROSS MACDONALD. The Way Some People Die (1951).

WaySomeDieSmall.jpgBefore 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. WaySomeDieOldBig.jpg 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.

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Posted by on April 10, 2010 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel


PHILIP MACDONALD. The Rynox Murder (1930).

“Less” is quite a bit “more” in this tidy, offbeat crime puzzle. It’s practically bereft of detectives (a few policemen do appear, albeit mainly in the form of incident reports that they submit) and wholly bereft of detection. In effect, readers must fill the crime-solving role directly, without mediation by a truth-seeking hero. MacDonald structures the tale as an inverted detective story that he has inverted yet again: It starts with an epilogue and ends with a prologue, and (roughly speaking) it depicts the unfolding of a complex criminal scheme in reverse chronological order. By dispensing with the apparatus of sleuthing and by focusing on the interplay among small group that includes a victim, a putative culprit, and a handful of the victim’s associates, MacDonald manages to pack a great deal of intrigue into a very slim volume.

RynoxMurderAmong the central players in the drama are Francis Xavier Benedik, a partner in a London investment firm; his son, Anthony Xavier Benedik, who is also a partner; a third partner, Samuel Rickworth; and Rickworth’s daughter, Petronella (“Peter”), who is Anthony’s fiancée. Supplementing the cast are assorted clerks, secretaries, and servants who work either at Rynox House, where the investment firm keeps its offices, or at the Benedik home in Mayfair. (MacDonald, in deftly sketching the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of those locations, provides an appealing sidelight of the tale’s main events.) One other character flits menacingly about the world inhabited by the Benediks and the Rickworths. He is Boswell March, a surly fellow who sports an odd-shaped hat and who harbors an oddly fierce grudge against F.X. Benedik. One night, Boswell pays a visit to the latter man’s house; then, after a fusillade of gunfire, the lifeless body of Benedik is found lying across the sill of a window in his study. The killing isn’t quite an impossible crime, but its mannered staging and intricate mechanics bear the clear stamp of Golden Age ingenuity. (Detailed floor plans and elaborate timetables further add to the novel’s appeal.)

The plot of The Rynox Murder, though well-crafted on the whole, has weaknesses: One aspect of how the assailant pulled off the killing doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and the key deception that underlies the crime will be fairly obvious to many readers. Other elements of the book, meanwhile, count as real strengths. True to its title, the novel centers much of its action on the business dealings of Rynox, a firm that has invested a large—perhaps too large—portion of its assets in a speculative venture that involves the then-new industry of synthetic rubber. MacDonald handles this otherwise uncompelling material with wit and flair, turning dry exchanges about bank loans and insurance policies into engaging narrative fodder. He also graces scene after scene with touches of sly, character-driven humor. Given its slender length and its compact plot, this novel (or is it a novella?) seems like a mere trifle. But it’s richly adorned trifle at that.


Posted by on February 6, 2021 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


JOHN D. MACDONALD. Dead Low Tide (1953).

DeadLowTide.jpgThe postwar building boom along the Gulf Coast of Florida created a ticky-tacky fly-by-night environment and brought to the area both strivers and slackers. It was a place where, in MacDonald’s rendering, great moral contests could unfold amid the marshy keys that man was wresting from the sea. Andrew Hale McClintock, a Syracuse University graduate who has come south to find his fortune, represents the striving class. He works for a hard-as-nails contractor, writing up bids and chasing down construction matériel. After the contractor’s wife embroils McClintock in her adultery-driven antics, he struggles to preserve his autonomy as well as his sanity. Then, after the contractor becomes a victim of murder, he fights to prove that he’s innocent of the crime. As MacDonald’s alter-ego, meanwhile, he carries the burden of narrating this taut adventure yarn, and he does so with the author’s patented blend with smart-aleck wit and florid lyricism. All in all, he comes across as a worthy protagonist—as a man equal to the villain of the piece, a blandly handsome slacker-psychopath named Roy. There are surprises in store for McClintock, and there is some sharp detective work for him to do, but there isn’t much mystery as to the locus of good and evil in the brave, balmy new world that he inhabits. An amusing sidelight to an otherwise naturalistic tale is the way that villain and hero alike resort to using rather outlandish weapons to achieve their violent ends: an underwater fishing gun in one case, a rod-and-reel in the other. (“There is never any doubt when you set a hook,” McClintock notes after landing a “big one” that definitely won’t get away.)


Posted by on December 2, 2010 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel


DASHIELL HAMMETT. The Dain Curse (1929).

Of Hammett’s five novels, this one has long had the lowest reputation—certainly in the view of the author himself, and by a fairly wide margin among most critics who celebrate his literary achievement overall. Yet the book, which Hammett churned out quickly and as a matter of financial exigency, offers plenty of vintage pulpy charm. More important, it stands as the ur-text for a prominent subgenre of detective fiction.

The story begins modestly, as if it came from one of the more desiccated leaves of a private eye’s casebook. Then it spirals manically into a strange, labyrinthine affair. The Continental Op, working on behalf of a jeweler’s insurance company, visits the San Francisco home of an inventor named Edgar Leggett. Some diamonds in Leggett’s possession have gone missing, and the Op starts chatting up people in the Leggett milieu who might know something about the whereabouts of those gems. The household includes the inventor’s wife, Alice, and his daughter, Gabrielle, and associates of the family include Eric Collinson, a suitor of Gabrielle, and Owen Fitzstephan, a writer who happens to know both the Leggett paterfamilias and the Op. A bit of poking around reveals to the Op that the apparent jewel theft is merely the tip of a highly toxic iceberg. The focus of investigative activity extends from the Leggett home to the Temple of the Holy Grail, the site of a sham religion that has drawn Gabrielle into its orbit, and then to an oceanside town called Quesada, where Gabrielle lands after a series of family tragedies. DainCurseMany corpses accumulate along the way, and the only factor that appears to link these deaths is Gabrielle. A possible explanation for all of this violence—though not one that the Op accepts—is a curse that supposedly afflicts the Dain family, from which Gabrielle and her mother descend.

Undergirding the novel is a narrative template that has more solidity than the looping (and sometimes loopy) contours of the case at hand. It’s a template that Raymond Chandler would use in part and on occasion, that Ross Macdonald would use in full and repeatedly, and that other practitioners of the California school of private eye writing would use as a birthright. Although the main venue for tales of this kind would shift from the northern part of the Golden State to the southern part, the defining elements of the template have been roughly constant: A private agent, initially brought in to resolve a fairly routine matter, becomes enmeshed in the coils of a dysfunctional family with a hidden, horrible past. His job (this detective is almost always a man) ends up requiring him to trace the accursed lineage of that family, and a question that frequently hangs over his work is whether the sins of self-indulgent parents will be visited upon their children. Common symptoms of family disarray include drug addiction, deviant sexuality, and participation in a pseudo-religious cult. (Such cults, of course, are known to find ample recruits among California’s insecurely rooted population.) In sorting through these pathologies, the detective functions less as an investigator than as a therapist; the true object of his quest is not truth or even justice, but social reparation and psychic absolution.

In a story of this type, much depends on the inclusion of a detective hero who can support the weight of a melodramatic and emotionally laden plot. The Op, a journeyman operative with the Continental Detective Agency who also appeared in Red Harvest and dozens of short works, meets that difficult test. His lack of a name in no way lessens the sense of presence that he confers on the Leggett affair—both as a professional sleuth and as the narrator of record. Indeed, the Op’s blunt, just-the-facts persona serves as an effective counterpoint to the bizarre, over-the-top sequence of events that he describes. His jaded response to the often ridiculous particulars of the case goes far in helping maintain the reader’s willing (and sometimes merely grudging) suspension of disbelief. What’s more, the Op gets a chance to display a softer, more human aspect of his hardboiled sensibility when he pauses his investigation to rescue one character from a dire personal fate. The temporary shift in his role from crimefighter to caretaker marks a surprising turn that works surprisingly well.

But the whole thing goes awry in the closing chapters, when the time comes for the Op to reveal and explain who did the murders, and how, and why. Uncharacteristically, Hammett handles this moment in a hectic and compressed manner, thus draining the denouement of both clarity and impact. This failing is all the more lamentable because Hammett manages the runup to the end quite deftly, and because he has engineered a grand twist that should carry a real wallop. Perhaps, in opting to explore the compassionate side of his knightly hero, the author had lost interest in the side of his hero that involves solving riddles and slaying dragons.


Posted by on September 8, 2020 in American, Golden Age, Hard-Boiled, Novel


MARGARET MILLAR. Wall of Eyes (1943).

When Millar introduces Detective-Inspector Sands of the Toronto Police Department, she notes how little about him is actually worth noting. “He had no strong sense of identity,” she writes; somewhat hyperbolically, she adds that “he lived in a vacuum.” Millar is a sly creator, however, and her creation is no less sly. As multiple suspects discover, there is far more to Sands than meets the eye. In a story that revolves around what people do or don’t see, the unobtrusive inspector sees just about everything, and he counts on others’ failing to see him in full. His very lack of definition allows him to serve a critical function for any detective hero—that of navigating the disparate sectors of a complex social landscape.

Wall of Eyes draws the strands of its plot from two very different segments of Toronto society. The main venue of action is the Heath family home, located in a part of town where old money goes to establish just how old and how moneyed it is. Denizens of the house include Kelsey Health, who is blind but has visions of unnamed people who are out to get her (she speaks of being menaced by a “wall of eyes”); Alice Heath, a tightly wound woman who is beginning to accept her impending spinsterhood; Johnny Heath, a former athlete whose youthful charm is starting to fade; and Philip James, a penniless musician who clings to his status as a family protégé. All of them live in an atmosphere of quiet gloom and steadily worsening decadence. WallEyesThe rest of the action occurs in and around a nightspot called Club Joey. Inhabitants of this locale include Mamie Rosen, a lovelorn torch singer; Tony Murillo, a small-time hoodlum who has shacked up with Rosen; Marcie Moore, a prim dancer with grand pretensions; and Stevie Jordan, a master of ceremonies who is a slave to his free-ranging fears. The mood among this crew is one of ersatz frivolity and genuine despair. The original connection point for these two realms is a car accident that occurred two years previously. Kelsey Heath and Philip James, who had become a couple, were traveling with Johnny Heath and his date, a singer at the nightclub named Geraldine Smith. Their car crashes, leaving Kelsey blind and Geraldine dead. Now, in the present, reverberations from that event lead to new anxieties—and to new spasms of violence.

The juxtaposition of these worlds, and the implication that both of them are corrupt in distinct (yet tragically complementary) ways, align this tale with the social vision around which Millar’s husband, Kenneth Millar—who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald—would famously build his cycle of hardboiled detective novels. As in Macdonald’s fictional universe, the intermingling of “high” society and it “low” counterpart operates as both a cause and an effect of spiritual malaise, and that dynamic impels certain characters to take criminally desperate measures. Indeed, hardboiled inflections are a feature in both writers’ work. Millar, because she often wrote about female protagonists and because many of her novels fall into the “domestic suspense” category, sometimes gets tagged as a “cozy” writer. But, as this early work demonstrates, she has a special talent not for giving readers a comfy feeling but for unsettling them. Again and again, Millar adopts the perspective of a given character as a means of highlighting the deceptions (of self and others) that mark the sorry, slippery nature of human life.

In blending elements that are alternately hard and soft, high and low, Millar offers a preview of more masterful work to come. The story that she tells here occasionally threatens to dissolve under the pressure of her elusive, involuted style. So subtle, so elaborate, are her renderings of various characters’ internal lives that readers are apt to lose track of the characters’ external actions. A noir-like miasma hovers over the edges of the narrative. But then, as the novel nears its finish, a twist arrives that illuminates the vital link between the milieu of the nightclub and the milieu of the Heath residence, and the tale reverts to classic detective-story form. In the aftermath of that twist, Sands explains how he elucidated the truth from a series of tangible clues—a pile of clothes borrowed from a missing man’s closet, a box of matchbooks that advertise Club Joey, a set of photographs taken after the car accident, and so forth. Like any top-grade sleuth, he is adept both at seeing what’s in front of him and at gleaning what lies beneath social appearances.


Posted by on June 8, 2020 in American, Noir, Novel, Puzzle


WALTER MOSLEY. Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).

In his début work, Mosley embraces many of the stylistic trappings and plot devices that define the Southern California private-eye adventure. And he adds a decisive twist: His hero, Easy Rawlins, is black. The case starts when a white man named DeWitt Albright—a slippery fellow whose motives are dubious but whose cash is quite real—hires Rawlins to locate a woman named Daphne Monet. She’s a white woman, Albright explains, but she “has a predilection for the company of Negroes.” DevilBlueDress.jpg Little by little, an apparently straightforward skip-trace job draws Rawlins into a vast whirlpool of corruption, and he will need to work fast and smart in order to escape the ordeal with his life, and with a remnant of his dignity. Broadly speaking, then, Rawlins confronts practical and existential challenges that would be familiar to any number of fictional gumshoes. Yet he isn’t just another lone knight on the model of Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer. Along with his dark skin, Rawlins bears a dark outlook that reflects his position in American society. He has meaner streets to ply than his white counterparts do, and the dangerous women who cross his path are all the more dangerous because they (most of them, at any rate) are on the other side of the color line from him. Rawlins had known violence and tasted freedom during the Second World War—the action takes place in 1948—and he has come home to find that in postwar Los Angeles violence is all too common and freedom is all too rare. By offering a stark glimpse into the mind and spirit of Rawlins as he carves out a life in that time and that place, Mosley elevates the tale above most works that follow in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald

The plot, however, exhibits the kinds of defects that often mar the hard-boiled form: It’s ridiculously complex, and it relies more on frenetic action than on thoughtful detection. As if to obscure the lack of clues that he provides, Mosley serves up a half-dozen corpses; in effect, he substitutes a process of elimination for one of investigation. As a result, in a reversal of what the best detective novels offer, the buildup proves more compelling than the payoff.

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Posted by on October 4, 2018 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel


ROBERT CRAIS. Stalking the Angel (1989).

Every fictional private eye reflects a private fantasy—that of the writer, who projects onto his intrepid gumshoe all of the attributes and attitudes that he prizes in himself, along with a slew of heroic qualities that he can only wish upon himself. StalkingAngel.jpgWhich is fine, as far as it goes: All writing is part therapy. But before taking his fantasy public, a private-eye writer does well to armor it with a keen, compelling voice and with a commitment to storytelling that’s equal to his hero’s commitment to crime-fighting. Crais falters on both counts. He gives to his sleuth and narrator, Elvis Cole, a coyly sarcastic voice that charms briefly but soon wears thin, and then throws Cole into a series of actions that never quite gathers itself into a well-crafted plot.

The building blocks of this tale are straight out of Chandler and Macdonald: a detective hired to recover a stolen rare object (in this case, an ancient Japanese tome called the Hagakure ); a troubled daughter in flight from an affluent, emotionally warped family; a beautiful ice queen who eventually melts in the face of the hero’s charisma; a climactic shift from the sin- and sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles to the false idyll of a mountain hideaway. Crais adds a couple of pieces that have a contemporary feel to them—the specter of child sexual abuse, a threat from Japan (in the form of Yakuza gangsters)—but the structure as a whole remains underdeveloped. Elvis Cole is a smart-ass with a heart of gold, and it’s hard to dislike him. Likability, however, does not always translate into readability.

[ADDENDUM: I’m repeating myself. I felt about this book pretty much the same as I felt about Robert B. Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace, and here I express the same kind of disappointment as I did just a few weeks ago about that earlier private-eye tale. Too often, I think, these latter-day exponents of the PI tradition conjure up the attitude of Philip Marlowe, but they lack the wit of Raymond Chandler; they fashion bleak plots that recall the work of Ross Macdonald, but the heroes that they create lack the humanity of Lew Archer. Is it just the case that PI tales that take place more or less in our own time don’t appeal to me? Not quite. I’ve read a few recent books of this kind that are also very good books. I’ll try, before long, to post a review of one such tale.]


Posted by on April 18, 2013 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel