Editor's Note: Anybody who has read many of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels will likely have a favorite among them. But there are no obvious or consistent choices. Sue Grafton, for instance, has said that her favorite is The Drowning Pool, Macdonald's second Archer outing. Recent biographer Tom Nolan speaks most highly of The Chill, while the late crime novelist Michael Avallone thought The Way Some People Die deserved to be called Macdonald's finest work. Others would give such accolades to The Underground Man or The Instant Enemy or The Galton Case. Out of curiosity, we asked Karl-Erik Lindkvist, the Swedish creator and editor of an excellent Web site called The Ross Macdonald Files, for his opinion on this matter. He sent us the following response:
When I stumbled over my first Ross Macdonald novel back in the fall of 1978 I was 16 years old. To say that it made an ineffaceable impression on me is hardly overstating the case. Although there are many detective novelists whose work I admire greatly, Macdonald is still the one against whom all others must be measured.
Since April marks the 50th anniversary of private eye Lew Archer's first appearance in The Moving Target, it is an ideal time for me to discuss my three favorite Archer novels and explain why I think they are the best of the bunch.
#1 The Goodbye Look, published in May 1969
If all factors are considered, I believe The Goodbye Look is the very best Archer novel. Others may offer better plots (Goodbye is thought, by some, to be a little bit over-plotted and far-fetched) or better characters, but here, all the elements that make up a classic Macdonald story come together beautifully. And this book is also a real page-turner. Whenever I sit down to re-read The Goodbye Look, I have a hard time putting it down. Even though I know the outcome, the unraveling of the mystery is so thrilling that I am willing to skip a night's sleep just in order to finish it in one sitting.
The book starts out innocently enough: Archer is hired by lawyer John Truttwell on behalf of his clients and friends, Larry and Irene Chalmers. A wealthy couple, the Chalmerses suspect that their son Nick is involved in the theft of an Italian Renaissance gold box from their home. Archer traces the box to one Jean Trask, who thinks it contains some leads to her father, Eldon Swain, a man who disappeared 24 years ago, after embezzling a fortune from his father-in-law's bank. But then Sidney Harrow, another investigator who is looking for Swain (and who has recently been involved in some curious activities with Nick Chalmers), turns up dead, and Archer realizes that there is a lot more to this case than just a gold box. Soon, he's probing at long-hidden secrets, disguised identities, and a 15-year-old slaying.
In order to help the psychologically troubled Nick, Archer must not only get to the bottom of Eldon Swain's long-ago bank swindle, but also solve the mystery of Nick's kidnapping ("by some sort of sexual psychopath") when he was 8 years old. The Chalmers' family doctor, Ralph Smitheram, appears to know a lot about this abduction, but like every physician in the Macdonald stories, he stubbornly refuses to tell Archer what he knows, forcing the detective to use all of his wits in order to catch a murderer before he kills again.
An important role in this plot is played by an old handgun that keeps turning up -- all too conveniently and significantly -- every time somebody new is killed. Early in the novel, for instance, a police captain named Lackland asks Archer to identify a photograph of the late Eldon Swain. After he complies, Lackland passes him another shot:
It was a flash picture which showed the weary face of a sleeping man. I blinked, and saw that the sleeping man was dead.
#2 The Zebra-Striped Hearse, published in May 1962
As far as plots are concerned, few can outdo that of The Zebra-Striped Hearse. The story has more twists and turns than a corkscrew, but it is completely logical all the way. And the resolution makes perfect sense. Yet it is close to impossible to guess the identity of the murderer without peeking at the novel's final pages.
The action begins when wealthy Colonel Mark Blackwell steps into Archer's West Hollywood office and demands that he dig up some dirt on Burke Damis, a young man who is planning to marry Blackwell's unlovely daughter Harriet. Blackwell doubts the honesty of Damis' intentions (he calls Damis "one of those confidence men who make a career of marrying silly women"), but since Harriet has fallen for him completely and won't listen to reason, her father must take drastic steps to discourage her. Archer reluctantly agrees to make some inquiries, but when he starts looking into Damis' past, he discovers not only that the real name of Harret's fiancé is Bruce Campion, but that he's linked to two murders -- one of the victims being his wife, Dolly. Campion is now supposedly trying to solve Dolly's death and thinks that it's connected with the Blackwells -- a suspicion that is heightened by the revelation that Mark Blackwell fathered Dolly Campion's recently born child. The Blackwells' troubles only grow worse when it appears that the colonel may also be responsible for the icepick killing of Campion's inquisitive friend, Quincy Ralph Simpson, and the sudden disappearance of Harriet Blackwell. But, of course, things are not as simple as they seem at first glance...
This story takes Archer all over the map, from Guadalajara, Mexico, to Lake Tahoe and back to Los Angeles. Although it is dated somewhat by references to early 1960s California surfer culture, those references are crucial to the plot. One scene finds Archer quizzing a couple of young surfers, Ray and Mona, who had found an expensive tweed coat on a beach -- a garment that may provide the clues Archer needs to wrap up this latest case. The P.I. wants to know on which beach the coat had washed up, to which Ray answers:
"I don't remember. We go to a lot of beaches."
#3 The Way Some People Die, published in June 1951
I think this is the first really full-fledged Archer novel. The previous two, The Moving Target and The Drowning Pool, hinted at the things Macdonald wanted to accomplish as a writer, but in those he didn't quite reach his goals. In The Way Some People Die the plot is still fairly simple, compared with his later works. But it was far ahead of the hard-boiled stuff then being turned out by other authors. I especially like the atmosphere of this novel, its evocation of early 1950s Hollywood and Los Angeles -- so different from the dark and threatening city that James Ellroy has described in his own more recent books (such as LA Confidential). Even though Macdonald portrays LA as a tough city, it isn't bereft of hope: heroin addicts can be cured, lost love can be found again, and the cops are a fairly honest bunch. New York Times critic Anthony Boucher was on to something when he declared that The Way Some People Die was "the best novel in the tough tradition I've read since Farewell, My Lovely and possibly since The Maltese Falcon."
This adventure starts at a house in Santa Monica, where a worried mother hires Archer to look for her daughter, Galatea ("Galley"), who has been missing for more than three months. The only sign that she's still alive is a card, posted to her mother from San Francisco on Christmas Eve of the previous year. When Archer starts asking questions at the hospital where Galley used to work, he realizes that she is mixed up in some kind of organized-crime racket responsible for running drugs from Mexico into California. There's $100,000 worth of heroin missing, along with $30,000 in cash that was supposed to pay for the drugs. After his own gun is used in a murder, Archer is sought by both the mob and the police, and before his case is cleared up, the reader has found out why Macdonald gave his novel such an odd title. This is the first book in which Lew Archer encounters homicidal women, and it is filled with male-female conflicts -- a principal concern of Macdonald's later novels.
People interested in Los Angeles history will appreciate the fact that, partway through The Way Some People Die, Archer sits down for dinner at the Musso and Frank Grill, on Hollywood Boulevard. Opened in 1919 (and still in operation), over the years it has hosted a wealth of celebrities, from authors Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and actor Raymond Burr. Archer evidently liked the joint, too:
I ate dinner at Musso's in Hollywood.... The steak came the way I liked it, medium rare, garnished with mushrooms, with a pile of fried onion rings on the side. I had a pint of Black Horse ale for dessert, and when I was finished I felt good. I had the kind of excitement, more prophetic than tea-leaves, that lifts you when anything may happen and probably will. | April 1999