“You don’t play footsie with a homicidal psycho, Mister.”
In Ross Macdonald’s gritty PI novel, The Doomsters, PI Lew Archer opens his front door late one night only to become embroiled in a tangled web of murder, deceit and toxic family relationships. Carl Hallman knocks at Archer’s door after escaping from a mental institution. Carl, who is irrational and raving, has a story to tell: sent there by fellow escapee Tom Rica, a heroin addict from Archer’s past, Carl claims that he’s been locked up by the family’s crooked doctor on orders from Carl’s older brother, Jerry. There’s a large inheritance at stake: the family’s orange orchards. Archer agrees to help on the condition that Carl return to the mental institution. Carl agrees, but on the way back, he overpowers Archer and steals his car. Archer, trying to track his car, and Carl, ends up on the Hallman estate along with Carl’s patient, long-suffering wife, Mildred. According to Mildred, the Hallman household is toxic:
A building can soak up emotions, you know, so that after a while it has the same emotions as the people who live in it. They’re in the cracks in the walls, the smokestains on the ceiling, the smells in the kitchen.
Mildred, who currently takes care of her boozy mother, says she was glad to leave the Hallman ranch. She claims that Carl’s incarceration at the mental institution is about Jerry controlling the money. Everyone on the Hallman estate, hearing of Carl’s escape, is on edge. Jerry Hallman returns home only to be murdered a few minutes later. Carl is the prime suspect, but he can’t be found. Archer has his doubts that Carl is the killer; it just all seems a little too convenient. And then again, Dr Grantland, the man who helped Jerry lock up Carl, seems to have a cozy bedside manner with Jerry’s wife, err.. make that widow. Add to the mix, a violent sheriff, and the body count rises–and then there’s the murky question of Carl’s parents’ deaths. …
The Doomsters, as its title suggests, is a novel that festers with people headed for doom. In this world of toxic relationships, many of the characters seal their own fate due to their choices or actions. Macdonald creates a number of fascinating women here: Miss Parrish, who seems so perfect and proper, works at the mental institution. A zealot, she has various theories about Carl’s breakdown, and she voices those theories with no small amount of snobbery. Mildred, Carl’s wife seems weighed down by responsibility and bad luck, and Zinnie, Jerry’s widow sizzles when a man casts his eyes her way.
A nice machine, I thought: pseudo Hollywood, probably empty, certainly expensive, and not new; but a nice machine.
A little of Archer’s past is revealed along with regret at the loss of his wife. He observes Zinnie, Mildred and Miss Parrish, noting that their affections are for others:
She sat down on the piano stool and took out a cigarette, which I lit for her. Twin lights burned deep in her eyes. I could sense her emotions burning behind her professional front, like walled atomic fires. They didn’t burn for me, though.
He seems to be just at the boundary of accepting that he’s too damaged to sustain a relationship with a woman. He’s not quite reached that cynical point of no return:
Try listening to yourself sometime, alone in a transient room in a strange town. The worst is when you draw a blank, and the ash-blonde ghosts of your past carry on long twittering long-distance calls with your inner ear, and there’s no way to hang up.
Lew Archer novels paint twisted images of family life, and this one is no exception. The ending is one long confession, and yet that detailed confession, a few pages later, is seeded with doubt. The entire experience leaves Archer hollow as he notes that people from the past “wait for you in time,” to “ambush” us in our memories