Category Archives: Macdonald Ross

The Moving Target: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 1:1949)

“You can’t blame money for what it does to people, the evil is in people and money is the peg they hang it on.”

Southern California millionaire, Ralph Sampson may be loaded, but he’s hanging out with all the wrong people. PI Lew Archer is hired by Sampson’s disaffected, much younger second wife to find her husband. Not that Mrs. Sampson really cares what Ralph is doing or who he’s with, just as long as he’s not giving away any more money. In spite of a crippling injury, Mrs. Sampson expects to outlive her husband and intends to inherit the whole enchilada.

There was a wheelchair standing beside her but she didn’t look like an invalid. She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark, her flesh seemed hard. Her hair was bleached, curled tightly on her narrow head like blobs of whipped cream. Her age was as hard to tell as a figure carved from mahogany.

According to Mrs. Sampson, her errant husband is “not missing exactly, just gone off by himself.” She wants to know where Ralph is and who he’s with. On the eccentric side, Ralph has gone off on a bender before. Ralph’s sexually precocious daughter, Miranda, is very concerned about her father, but she’s still got time to dangle herself in front of Ralph’s hunky pilot, Alan. Meanwhile, Ralph’s lawyer and family friend Albert Graves is desperately in love with Miranda. It would be a somewhat incongruous match due to their tremendous age gap, and Albert knows he’s outgunned by Alan.

Archer takes the case, noting that Ralph may not even be ‘missing’ or in danger. It’s thought that Ralph may be in Los Angeles, and according to Albert Graves, Los Angeles “isn’t safe for an elderly lush.” Graves notes that Mrs. Sampson has “dominant motives like greed and vanity,” but he’s there more to give Miranda his support and keep an eye on his rival, Alan. The search takes Archer to Los Angeles, seedy clubs, and a religious retreat run by a corrupt guru. Mingling with Hollywood has-beens, Archer finds himself getting an aging actress drunk. He despises himself for it; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Ross Macdonald is an incredibly descriptive writer, a master of inventive similes, and in this novel, he creates the tawdry, cheap glamour of the low side of Hollywood. Archer is a man we want to hang out with. Who could refuse to ride shotgun?

“I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain, definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.

Don’t stop.”

“I’m fouled up, why should I foul you up?”

“I am already. And I don’t understand what you said.

“I’ll take it from the beginning. When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop’s job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn’t so simple. Everybody has it in him and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things: environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend. The trouble is a cop has to go on judging people by rule of thumb and acting on the judgment.”

“Do you judge people?”

“Everybody I meet. The graduates of the police schools make a big thing of scientific detection, and that has its place, but most of my work is watching people and judging them.”

“And you find evil in everybody?”

“Just about. Either I’m getting sharper or people are getting worse. And that could be. War and inflation always raise a crop of stinkers, and a lot of them have settled in California.”

That quote–the motives behind evil actions–is certainly true here. Archer is a marvelous creation, a terrific narrator: world weary and sardonic, the nature of his cases takes into the very heart of toxic, twisted family relationships. He’s seen a lot, and in spite of this, he maintains his humanity–possibly because he maintains his independence. He seems to be self-composed and yet Miranda sniffs, there’s a edge of self-destruction there under the surface, and this emerges as they talk about driving at high speeds.

“Do you drive fast?”

“I’ve done 105 on this road in the caddie.”

The rules of the game we were playing weren’t clear yet. But I felt outplayed. “And what’s your reason.”

I do it when I’m bored pretend to myself that I’m going to meet something. Something utterly new. Something naked and bright. A moving target in the road.”

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross, posts

Meet Me at the Morgue: Ross Macdonald (1953)

“The things a man does are always connected in some way.”

In Ross Macdonald’s crime novel, Meet Me at the Morgue, parole officer Howard Cross runs into Fred Miner, a parolee. It’s an insignificant meeting and yet those few moments have serious ramifications. Miner is looking for Cross’s partner, but he’s gone from the office. Since Miner’s business isn’t with Cross, they exchange only a few words, but during that minute or so, Cross notices that Miner is accompanied by his employer’s small son, Jamie. Within hours, it appears that Miner has kidnapped the boy and is demanding a $50,000 ransom. It seems odd that Miner, in the midst of a kidnapping, would take a detour to visit his parole officer–especially in the company of the kidnapped boy.

In Meet Me at the Morgue, Cross assumes a PI role as he investigates the kidnapping. The kidnapped boy is the son of the very wealthy Abel Johnson, and his attractive oh-so-much-younger wife. The plot thickens when it turns out that Miner, a man of otherwise impeccable background, is on parole for vehicular manslaughter, but Miner doesn’t remember a thing about the accident as he was drunk at the time. Another curious fact, the dead man had no ID, and no one stepped forward to claim the body. Add yet another curious fact, Miner’s lawyer, Siefel is also the lawyer for the Johnson family. And apparently Cross’s assistant Ann is dating, Seifel, Johnson’s lawyer… well she’s trying to date him. But mummy gets getting in the way:

Her eyes were on her son like wet, black leeches. “It’s mean and selfish of you to keep me waiting like this. I didn’t devote my life to you in order to be cast aside whenever you feel the whim.”

“I’m sorry mother.”

“Indeed you should be sorry, you forced me to take a public bus down here.”

You could have taken a taxi.”

I can’t afford to pay taxi fare every day. You never think of my sacrifices, of course, but it has cost me an enormous amount of money to set you up in practice with Mr. Sturdyvant.”

“I realise that.” He looked at me miserably. His body seemed to have shrunk and taken on an adolescent awkwardness. “Can we drop the subject for now mother? I’m ready to drive you anywhere you’d like.”

She said with icy boredom, “finish your business, Lawrence. I’m in no hurry. In fact I’ve lost any interest I had in the party. I believe I feel a headache coming on.”

Please mother, don’t be like that.” He fumbled awkwardly reaching for her hand she turned away from him in a movement of disdainful coquetry and walked to the window on high sharp heels. I stepped into the elevator. The last I saw of his face it looked bruised and shapeless as if her Cuban heels had been hammering it.

The Johnsons decide to obey the kidnappers’ demands: not tell the police and hand over the money. The situation presents Cross with a moral dilemma. He knows that he should inform the police but he also feels obligated to respect the Johnsons’ wishes, but when a dead man is found with an ice pick sticking out of his neck, Cross brings in the police.

What’s that old saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ The deeper Cross digs, things just don’t add up, and yet the same names keep connecting in bizarre ways. This fate-laden tale is a hellish journey for Cross, and the investigation is peppered with strong characterizations: unhappy wives, a controlling mother, a disappointed father, and an underage girl who has a great figure but not much in the brains department. Ross Macdonald’s (Kenneth Millar) intense descriptive powers add to this excellent tale, and as Cross continues his labyrinthine investigation, the human landscape yields glimpses of various versions of private hell–the private hell of poisonous relationships.

The car ground to a stop on the cinder shoulder, the shallow ditch was paved with empty cans. A Sulphur stench fouled the the air. On the rim of the plain against the cloudy reflection of the city, the oil derricks stood like watchtowers around a prison camp where nothing lived. I’d come to the wrong place at the wrong time and done the wrong thing.

4 Comments

Filed under Macdonald Ross, posts

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