The Zebra Striped Hearse: Ross Macdonald (1962)

“She was waiting at the office door when I got back from my morning coffee break. The women I usually ran into in the rather dingy upstairs corridor were the aspiring hopeless girls who depended on the modeling agency next door. This one was different.”

California PI Lew Archer is hired by the inflexible retired Colonel Blackwell to investigate his only daughter, Harriet’s fiancé, painter Burke Damis. 24-year-old Harriet, who is due to inherit a “half-million-dollar trust fund” in just a few months time, met Burke in Mexico. After a couple of meetings with Burke, the Colonel is convinced that his prospective son-in-law is a fortune hunter. Archer had a preemptive visit from the Colonel’s much younger wife, Isobel, who argues that the Colonel is overprotective, so Archer takes the case with some misgivings–first Harriet is a grown woman and she can marry whom she pleases. Secondly Blackwell’s huffy attitude is opposed to Archer’s methods, but he agrees to take the case as long as the Colonel, who’s used to giving orders, understands that “the chips fall where they fall.”

Harriet and Burke currently reside in the Blackwell family beach house, so this is Archer’s first stop. Apart from an initial subterfuge to get through the beach house door, it’s a full-frontal approach. Archer doesn’t believe in working in the dark, following people or spying on their secret lives–at least not in this novel. After a few minutes in the company of Harriet and Burke, Archer concludes that the lovers’ relationship is one-sided, and that the Colonel’s suspicions are probably correct. Harriet is a “lot of girl.”

I saw why her father couldn’t believe that any man would love her truly or permanently. She looked too much like him.

Archer travels down to Mexico, to the remote town where Burke was living when he met Harriet, and here he discovers that Burke’s past is blurry. Archer must penetrate the sometimes hostile American ex-pat community–people who want to forget their lives in America and have chosen “a sealed-off past.” The case, which should be fairly simple, becomes increasingly complicated, more circuitous, and Archer finds himself pursuing the truth even though his employers don’t like his methods or his attitude.

Isobel Blackwell spoke behind me as I hung up: “Do you doubt everything and everyone?”

She had washed her face and left it naked of make-up. Her hair was wet at the temples.

“Practically everything,” I said. “Almost everyone. It’s a little habit I picked up from my clients by osmosis.”

In this quintessential detective novel, Archer has his own set of ethics. He wants to believe there’s good in the world, but his experiences tell him otherwise. He has a gut feeling about some people.

I lit a cigarette and considered my answer. Between my duty to the law and the man who trusted me, and my duty to a client I no longer trusted, my ethics were stretched thin.

Lew Archer, with his wry dry humor, is a great series detective, and the novel is peppered with great characters–most of them liven up and open up when they hear it’s unpleasant news about someone else. There’s little human charity. We meet a washed up actress, a toupee wearing desk clerk, a policeman’s wife, and parents who live in denial about their daughter’s past. We may only get a sliver of a glimpse into their lives, but that toxic sliver is enough:

But it’s hard on an older woman having a younger woman in the house. A younger woman with all those troubles, it puts a strain on the marriage.” She ran her fingers over her curlers, as if they were holding the marriage precariously together.

And here’s Fawn, a second-rate lounge singer hoping for the big time, and in the meantime she pays her rent with “dates.” She has a hardier morality than most of the women in the book.

The song broke off when I knocked. She appeared at the door, her face still softened by music her brown eyes held a puzzled innocence. Perhaps she was puzzled by her body and its uses. It was full and tender under her sweater, like fruit that is ripened too quickly. She held it for me to look at and said in a semiprofessional voice: “Hello, I was just practicing my Blues style.”

“I heard. You have a nice voice.”

“So they all tell me. The trouble is, the competition here is terrif. They bring in recording stars, and it isn’t fair to the local talent.”

“You’re a local girl?”

“This is my third season. My third fabulous season which makes me an old-timer.”

“And you want to be a singer?”

“Anything,” she said. “Anything to get out of the rat race. Do you have any suggestions?”

My usual line was ready. The one I used on aspiring starlets and fledgling nightingales and girls who hoped to model their way into heaven: I was from Hollywood, knew movie people, could help. Her puzzled innocence stopped me.

“Just keep trying .”

She regarded me suspiciously, as though I had flubbed my cue.

At the conclusion of the novel, I had to puzzle out some of the meetings and some of the timelines of this complicated murder case. And I haven’t even mentioned the zebra-striped hearse. After working out the timelines, I stewed on the cesspit steaming and bubbling under the plot–the things Archer suspects, the things hinted at but not proved. The twisted aspects of this case grow rapidly and wrap around the plot, but always Archer understands that there’s a beginning and end of this case–of every case. He just has to find it.

I was thinking that you never could tell what murderers would do.

Marvelous.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross

One response to “The Zebra Striped Hearse: Ross Macdonald (1962)

  1. Read a couple of Ross Macdonalds years ago and enjoyed them. I should get back to reading him.

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