Category Archives: Macdonald Ross

Black Money: Ross Macdonald (1966)

“I didn’t like the purposeful look in her eye, and I began to regret the bottle of pink champagne. She took it from my hands as if she planned to break it over the prow of an affair.”

Black Money is the 13th book in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. This tale brings the private detective to a tennis club in the upscale Southern California college town of Montevista, where he’s employed by Peter Jamieson, the bulimic son of a local wealthy man. Jamieson hires Archer to ‘save’ his ex-fiancée, Virginia Fablon. Virginia, after jilting Peter, has taken up with the charismatic Francis Martell. On the surface Virginia’s decision to dump Peter in favor of Martell doesn’t seem so odd. Virginia is a lover of all things French, and Martell is educated, handsome and sophisticated–unlike Peter who spends most of the time stuffing himself:

He looked like money about three generations removed from its source. Though he couldn’t have been out of his early twenties, his face was puffy and apologetic, the face of a middle-aged boy. Under his carefully tailored Ivy League suit, he wore a layer of fat like easily penetrable armor.

Martell is a man of mystery; he claims to be both wealthy and in hiding from De Gaulle. Peter doesn’t buy the story, and so Archer begins digging for the truth. It seems that Martell recently arrived in town with a Bentley and a 6 figure deposit made from a Panamanian bank. His references used to get into the local tennis club are suspect. Martell also becomes positively violent at the idea that someone might take his photograph. Archer suspects that Martell isn’t the French aristocrat he claims to be, and soon Archer connects Martell to the suicide (supposedly) of Virginia’s father years before.

In the course of his investigation, Archer meets a widow with secrets, a doctor with a secret vice, an over-worked French professor, and his frisky much younger discontented wife who is looking for a way out of her kitchen-life:

Though she had a strokeable looking back, my hands were careful not to wander. The easy ones were nearly always trouble: frigid or nympho, scitzy or commercial or alcoholic, sometimes all 5 at once. Their nicely wrapped gifts of themselves often turned out to be homemade bombs or fudge with arsenic in it.

When the novel began, I initially thought it lacked the punch of many of the other titles I have read so far, but as the book continued, the plot grew on me. Ultimately, Black Money is my favorite in the series so far. It shows a more mature Archer. Cynical yes, but a touch of humor to his barbed observations as he roots through this snobbish college town where claiming to be a Frenchman apparently opens all doors. The emotional layers of the story are poignant, and the crimes–in terms of moral responsibility–are complex.

A few years ago, there was talk of the Coen bros. making a film of Black Money, but so far that hasn’t happened. And that’s a shame.

She was rough. They get that way sometimes when they marry too young and trap themselves in a kitchen, wake up in a kitchen and wake up ten years later wondering where the world is.

 

 

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The Far Side of the Dollar: Ross Macdonald

In The Far Side of the Dollar, the 12th novel in the Lew Archer series, Archer is called to Laguna Perdida, a pricey, drab reform school, by Dr Sponti. Sponti hires Archer to find a runaway, Tom Hillman, a teen who was recently sent to the school by his affluent parents. Sponti, hoping to squash any scandal, wants the boy found, but the plot thickens when Archer learns that the Hillmans have received a demand for $25,000 for Tom’s safe return. The Hillmans aren’t the easiest people to deal with, and Archer senses that there is more to the story than he is being told. He’s particularly interested in the reason why the Hillmans sent Tom to the reform school. Archer, looking for answers, follows the trail back into the past, and along the way he runs into some very different families: all of them unhappy (in their own way as Tolstoy notes).

Tom appears to be a kidnap victim in the hands of an opportunistic couple: Carol and a tough guy named Harley. Archer tracks the shady couple to a run-down motel: Dack’s Auto Court, and there he finds Carol beaten to death….

The Far Side of the Dollar is not as cynical as many of the other novels in the series. There’s an undercurrent of lost boys and broken families. Some of the boys at Laguna Perdida are initially hostile to Archer’s questions but then one teen asks the detective, poignantly, if he is a father. Archer finds himself offering fatherly advice to Tom’s teenage neighbour, Stella, a wonderful young girl who promises to grow into a wonderful woman, and there are several times he recommends professional help for families and marriages in trouble. There are many broken families here: one family broken by a religious nutcase who believes in beating his children until they come to their senses, one marriage broken by infidelity, and another broken by a man’s longing for a son.

The novel is not as cynical and world-weary as its predecessors, but Archer is seen very much as an outsider as usual. This time he’s an outsider without a wife and children–which may be a good thing considering all the versions of broken families he sees in this book. Also a love interest is introduced, so there’s a note of optimism in spite of the body count and the wretched families. It’s written with Macdonald’s terrific, yet seemingly simple sense of atmosphere and description:

It was August, and it shouldn’t have been raining. Perhaps rain was to strong a word for the drizzle that blurred the landscape and kept my windshield wipers going. I was driving south, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

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The Chill: Ross Macdonald (1964)

People who don’t believe in divorce sometimes believe in murder.”

In Ross MacDonald’s The Chill, PI Lew Archer is hired by newlywed, Alex to find his missing bride. Alex and Dolly were on their honeymoon at the Surf House when she was visited by an older, bearded man. After that meeting Dolly disappeared. Archer takes the case and begins digging into the identity of the mystery visitor and Dolly’s past.

According to Alex, Dolly had no family, but Archer discovers that that isn’t true; Dolly’s mother was murdered and her father went to prison for the crime. It doesn’t take much digging for Archer to find Dolly’s mystery visitor: Dolly’s father, fresh out of prison for killing Dolly’s mother. It’s not too surprising that Dolly’s father sought his daughter as it was Dolly’s testimony, as a child, that put him behind bars. Why did she disappear? Is she frightened of her father?

While Archer may have found Dolly’s father, he has yet to find Dolly. His search takes him to the college campus where Dolly enrolled as a student. Vampish Professor Helen Haggerty, Dolly’s academic counselor, invites Archer home for a drink and then begs him to protect her from the mysterious threats she has received. …

The Chill takes Archer back over 20 years and several murders which seem to be inexplicably linked. As the body count rises, Archer runs into an interesting cast of characters: the ex-detective twisted by grief and guilt, the rigid society widow who is happy to bury the truth, and the college dean who doesn’t take a step without mummy’s approval. While I did not guess the solution, when it arrived, it was implausible. Interesting but still implausible. Macdonald’s novels twist on the sordid complications of broken family, and that is true here. When Archer closes his cases, he probably swears he will remain single. Not the best in the series; this is number 11.

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The Doomsters: Ross Macdonald (1958) Lew Archer 7

“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

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The Wycherly Woman: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer #9)

“I glanced up at her small tense face. She looked like a bunny after a hard Easter.”

In The Wycherly Woman, PI Lew Archer becomes embroiled in the ashes of an acrimonious divorce in pursuit of a missing daughter. Archer is summoned to the home of the obnoxious bombastic Homer Wycherly, a wealthy man who has just returned from a cruise only to find that his only child, Phoebe, has been missing since the day he sailed. Homer Wycherly hires Archer to find Phoebe with the odd admonition that Archer not, under any circumstances, contact his ex-wife Catherine, a woman with, according to Homer, a “vile tongue.”

Just a little digging and Archer discovers that Phoebe was last seen in the company of her mother. Phoebe came aboard her father’s cruise ship to say “Bon Voyage,” but the moment was ruined by Catherine Wycherly who came aboard the ship before it sailed and created a scene with Homer. She demanded money. Two months have passed and during that time, Phoebe has not been seen at Boulder Beach College, at her rooming house, or by her momma’s boy boyfriend, Bobby. Bobby’s acidic mother is, or was, also Phoebe’s landlady. Archer is sure that Bobby knows more than he’s saying, and it’s clear that there’s no love lost between Bobby’s mother and Phoebe.

Although Archer is told by Wycherly to steer of Catherine, after he learns that Phoebe left the ship with her mother, he has little choice but to talk to Catherine. One missing person case quickly becomes a case of two missing persons. Catherine, a full-bodied, loud-mouthed blonde long past her sell-by-date, has also disappeared. Her residence, bought with money from the divorce, is up for sale, and when Archer starts asking questions regarding the real estate agent involved, the body count rises.

Archer encounters a lot of lonely, lost women on his way to solving the mystery:

You’re a hard man, aren’t you? But I like you, I really do. Are you married?

No.

I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t know where to go.

She leaned towards me with a lost expression, hoping to be found.

For most of the book, I thought The Wycherly Woman could end up being at the top of my Archer list. I liked the book’s structure, and the elusive glimpses Macdonald gives the reader of Phoebe, a troubled girl who never recovered from her parent’s nasty divorce. I didn’t come close to unraveling the mystery, and the toxic stench from Homer and his relatives kept me guessing. On the down side, the plot twist was hard to swallow. Can’t say more than that without giving too much away.

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The Galton Case: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 8)1959

In Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, PI Lew Archer is hired by one of California’s richest families to find the long lost heir, Anthony Galton. 22-year-old Anthony Galton disappeared, along with his pregnant, lowlife wife and a sizeable amount of cash, over 20 years ago in 1936. There’s been no word from him since. Widowed Mrs Galton, querulous and ill, wants Anthony, Tony, found, so the family lawyer, Sable, hires Archer for the job. With the trail long cold, Archer thinks the search is a waste of time and money, but he takes the job. mainly due to curiosity.

Oddly enough, in this cold case, there’s a trail of clues, like pieces of gingerbread that lead Archer to a pile of bones and a young man who claims to be Anthony Galton’s son. This seems to be the end of a long saga, but Archer isn’t satisfied. Early in the book, Archer says he “hates coincidences,” and those coincidences begin piling up.

When Archer starts digging, it’s the 50s, but the case reaches back into a world of prohibition and organized crime. There are many unanswered questions: including who killed Anthony Galton (the pile of bones without a head) and why? Where is his wife? The son has a story which seems to check out, but the entire swirling mess is entangled with some very unsavory characters. One of them, an impertinent, unlikely ‘butler’ who works for Sable and his much younger wife, is stabbed to death on the Sables’ doorstep by an unidentified man. Also, Archer isn’t happy with the way in which the missing persons case was solved so easily. Plus he is beaten badly and ends up in hospital.

Archer is a great character; he has his own code of ethics and once interested in a case, no-one can shake him lose. In The Galton Case, Archer is given a big cheque and is expected to walk away, but Archer senses there’s a lot more to the Galton story, and he continues investigating. Lew Archer books are peppered with fascinating characters, and there’s always the sense that Archer stumbles into the messy detritus of people’s lives. Here there’s a middle-aged poet, a woman with a shady past who now lives shrouded in middle-aged respectability, and a sordid couple who run a sordid rooming house. Many of the characters are imprisoned in their miserable lives. The class divide is the strongest yet I’ve seen in an Archer novel.

I bought a pint of whisky to ward off the chill and checked in at the Salisbury, a small side-street hotel where I usually stayed in San Francisco. The desk clerk was new to me. Desk clerks are always moving up or down. This one was old and on his way down; his sallow face dropped in the pull of gravity. He handed me my key reluctantly:

“No luggage, sir?”

I showed him my bottle in its paper bag.

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The Barbarous Coast: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 6) 1956

“Jerkiness isn’t as respectable as it used to be, even in LA. which is why they had to build Vegas.”

In Ross Macdonald’s The Barbarous Coast, Lew Archer tangles with organized crime and decadent Hollywood. Archer is called to the exclusive Channel Club on Malibu Beach by nervous middle-aged club manager, Clarence Bassett. Bassett is being threatened by George Wall, a young married man, who is looking for his missing wife, Hester and claims that Bassett knows where she is.

Before Archer even meets Bassett, he runs into George Wall trying to crash the club in a desperate attempt to talk to Bassett who refuses to see the very upset husband. Archer also meets Tony Torres, ex-fighter and now the gateman at the Channel Club.

The job to protect Bassett turns into a job to find Hester–after all the two things are connected. Hester was part of a diving show, and at one point dove with Gabrielle Torres (daughter of Tony) and her cousin Manuel. Gabrielle was murdered a year ago–found shot dead on the beach, and Manuel, once a boxer too, is now banned from the profession and has served a jail sentence. Life seems to be looking up for Manuel; he’s now an actor calling himself Lance and works for a gangster named Carl Stern. Tony Torres used to be close to his nephew and now has nothing to do with him. According to Tony:

A boy gets ants in his pants, you can’t hire no exterminator for that.

Archer’s investigations are often circular, and this one is no exception. Archer senses that Gabrielle’s unsolved murder is connected to Hester’s disappearance, and as usual, Archer’s instincts are correct. There’s a tawdry, rancid stench of shop-worn glamour to the Hollywood crowd in these pages. On one level, there are these young people, the ones with the looks, Hester, Gabrielle and Lance and then there’s the moneyed crowd pulling the strings, gangster Carl Stern, producer Simon Graf and his certifiable wife Isobel, who bounces in and out of institutions. Then there’s Bassett who hosts the rich and famous while nervously trying to keep them happy, entertained and the drinks flowing.

This is probably my least favourite Archer novel so far. We don’t get much of Archer’s philosophy (always enjoyable) and the tale lacks the usual moodiness. I didn’t buy the murder wrap-up. Many of the characters are flat, but Tony Torres is well-created, and Bassett was fun. This is a story of moral corruption and how the pretty and the young who have their looks, their youth, and their bodies to sell, are exploited as playthings by the rich and famous. All of this moral corruption is laced with the trappings of Hollywood and supported by organized crime. Naturally, the young and beautiful end up dead or kicked to the curb when their attractions fade or pall.

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Find a Victim: Ross Macdonald (1954)

“It was a long fall straight down through the darkness of my head. I was a middle aging space cadet lost between galaxies and out of gas.”

Ross Macdonald’s Find a Victim is the 5th Lew Archer novel in this PI series. This excellent novel is a little different from its predecessors, and although Archer is hired to investigate in this murky case, he’s also fired. By that time, however, Archer is committed to the case because he’s in it up to his neck and is considered, at times, a murder suspect. The novel is darker than the earlier novels in the series, and incest, hinted at in an earlier novel, is loud and clear here.

Some people are Trouble Magnets, and we see this in Find a Victim. Archer is minding his own business, driving North to Sacramento when he sees a badly wounded man on the side of the road. He pulls over and takes the man, a shooting victim, to the nearest place he can find. That turns out to be Kerrigan’s Court: Deluxe Motor Hotel which is owned by the unhappily married couple, the Kerrigans. Kerrigan isn’t happy to see the bleeding man who is dying of a gunshot wound, and he seems annoyed that Archer brought this man, a man he identifies as a truck driver known as Tony, to his doorstep. By the time the local sheriff arrives, Tony is barely alive. All the parties involved up to this point are hostile to Archer and the idea is floated that Archer may be the murderer. Naturally, feeling involved, Archer sticks around to delve into the case. He discovers that Tony was driving a truck full of whiskey. The truck has disappeared along with its valuable contents. Turns out the motel receptionist, Ann, has also disappeared.

This is a tight little town in which everyone seems related or connected to each other in some way. Ann, who also happens to be the sheriff’s sister-in-law, AND the daughter of the owner of the trucking company, was also Kerrigan’s mistress until fairly recently. Now, however, Kerrigan is knocking around with nightclub singer, Jo, a girl with “a mouth as sullen as sin.” The nightclub used to belong to Kerrigan, but Kerrigan, up to his eyeballs in debt, just sold it. Here’s Jo:

She looked “more like an actress who hadn’t quite made the grade down south or a very successful amateur tart in the verge of turning pro. Whatever her business was, there had to be sex in it. She was as full of sex as a grape is full of juice and so young that it hadn’t begun to sour.

Hired by irritable, unstable trucking company owner Mike to find the whiskey, the truck, Tony’s killer AND Mike’s missing daughter, Ann, Archer manages to piss off almost everyone in town. There are too many connections between the major players to be just coincidence and Archer unravels the mess and mystery surrounding Tony’s murder. Of all the Archer novels I’ve read so far, this is my favourite. As with the other novels, Archer steps into a twisted, violent world in which he is the outsider trying to discover the truth. Once again, he gets little thanks but lots of beatings. Ross Macdonald seems to hit his stride with Find a Victim, and his use of language complements the story’s tempo and its pitch perfect darkness

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The Ivory Grin: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 4)

“The people you love are never the ones that love you.”

Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin centres on a seemingly simple case of finding a young woman, but the case becomes more complicated as the bodies pile up. This tale of jealousy and revenge begins with private detective Lew Archer being hired by a middle-aged woman he dislikes. He finds her waiting for him outside of his office early one morning, and with just two sentences out of her mouth, Archer notes “she had begun to irritate me already.” She wears a “slack suit” with a blue mink stole and her hands are dripping with large diamonds. She alternates between “girlish vivacity and boyish earnestness” neither of which fit this hard-edged woman who is clearly used to being obeyed.

“Call me Una,” she said.

“Do you live in Los Angeles?”

“Not exactly. Where I live doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you what does if you want me to be blunt.”

“I couldn’t bear it if you weren’t.” Her hard dry glance went over me almost tangibly and rested on my mouth. “You look all right. But you sound kind of Hollywood to me.”

I was in no mood to swop compliments. The ragged edge on her voice and her alternation of fair and bad manners bothered me. It was like talking to several persons at once, none of them quite complete.

Protective coloration.” I caught her glance and held it. “I meet a lot of different types.”

For one thing, Una, as she calls herself, spins Archer a tall tale about needing to find a former employee, a black girl called Lucy. In the first version Una tells Archer that Lucy stole some jewelry and she wants it back. When Archer doesn’t swallow that tale, the second story is that Lucy knows about Una’s “private affairs,” and Una wants to know what company Lucy keeps. Both stories reek, but Archer’s interest is aroused so he takes the case. But things don’t add up–Una knows where Lucy is, where she hangs out and even what she’s wearing.

She produced a crumpled bill and tossed it to me as if were an old piece of Kleenex and I were a wastebasket. I caught it. It was a hundred dollar bill, but I didn’t put it away.

Archer’s used to digging in the grubby lives of his clients, and so often doesn’t get the straight scope, but this woman is over the top: she won’t tell him her real name, and she won’t tell him where she lives. But the trump card that should end it all is that Archer doesn’t like this woman. At all. Archer drives to Bella City, the place where Lucy was spotted, and in hardly any time at all, he sees her. He follows her only to see her tossed from a boarding house, so when Lucy moves to a low-rent hotel, Archer takes the room next door.

The case, which seemed so quickly resolved, becomes complicated. Archer follows Lucy to the grubby practice of a local doctor, a doctor whose femme fatale wife doesn’t fit the image of a small-town doctor’s wife. Curiouser and curiouser, there’s a low-rent PI on Lucy’s tail who gets busy pumping the doctor’s nurse for info. Who is he working for? Turns out that Lucy is somehow involved in a kidnapping case, but Archer doesn’t understand what Lucy’s role was. When Archer finds Lucy with her throat cut, he’s committed to the case–not the client. Archer may be working for “Una” but as always his code of conduct defines his actions. This novel, written in Macdonald’s gritty, sardonic style, is about a tangled mess in which an elusive, opportunistic femme fatale leaves a trail of lovers, creating chaos and moving on. But the tale is also about the depths of human nature–how warped and corrupt people stain everyone they touch sometimes with fatal results.

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The Drowning Pool: Ross Macdonald (1950)Lew Archer 2

“Sex and Money; the forked root of evil.”

Back to Lew Archer for Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool. This novel is the second in the series, following on the heels of The Moving Target. In this novel, Lew Archer investigates a case involving threatening letters, but the case quickly devolves to murder. The very attractive Maude Slocum visits Archer’s office and shows him a short vicious letter which was sent to her husband, James. The letter, which Maude intercepted, accuses Maude of adultery. Maude denies that she has been unfaithful, but Archer isn’t so sure. Maude argues that another letter might reach James and he would give it to his mother. That would ensure an ugly divorce. Archer agrees to take the case, although he thinks there must be more to the accusations of adultery. And, as usual, Archer’s instincts are spot-on.

Archer travels to Nopal Valley, to the home of the Slocums. James Slocum is an amateur actor with the Quinto Players , and Archer, catching a rehearsal, watches James Slocum hamming it up as the dramatic lead in a pathetically bad play written by pompous Francis Marvell.

It was the kind of play that only a mother or an actor could love, the kind of stuff that parodied itself. Phony sophistication with a high gloss, and no insides at all.

While Archer watches a few scenes from this awful play, he also catches a dramatic scene, offstage that takes place between teenage nymphette Cathy Slocum and the man she’s been practicing on, the Slocums’ hunky chauffeur, Reavis.

He turned and smiled wide, full in my face, and I had my first chance to study him. The teeth were white. the black eyes frank and boyish, the lines of the features firm and clean. Reavis had quantities of raw charm. But underneath it there was something lacking. I could talk to him all night and never find his core, because he had never found it.

Then onto the Slocum home where matriarch Olivia Slocum rules with an iron rod. James, Maude, and their teenage daughter Cathy live there too, with mummy holding the purse strings. Her property, which sits on oil, is worth a fortune. She refuses to sell for sentimental and moral reasons, but the property and her fortune keep James tied to her. Olivia is one of those mothers. According to her, James is a Renaissance Man, a veritable genius at everything he turns his attention to. And what is going on between Marvell and James? And why does Ralph Knudson, the Chief of Police, a “tall and thick, a bifurcated chunk of muscle” hang out at the Slocum home? And why is Maude Slocum so tense when Knudson shows up? It’s obvious that the relationships between the Slocums are unhealthy and twisted. Maude hates her mother-in-law, Olivia hasn’t forgiven James for marrying Maude, and Cathy flirts with the help. Add to that the very sick and twisted relationship between Maude and James….

With the discovery of a body floating in the pool, the case becomes more and more complicated. The Drowning Pool is my least favourite Archer so far, but it is still better than most crime books out there. These were unforgiving times for homosexuality, and the characters queasily reflect the attitudes of period. But the family dynamic–people who hate each other yet stick together for money–rang all too true. Packed with atmosphere and MacDonald’s signature hard style, the story packs a powerful punch.

The reflection of a stop-light made a long red smudge on the asphalt where 101 Alternate crossed the foot of the town. Four or five heavy trucks had gathered at the truck stop on the corner like buffalo at a waterhole. As I turned right onto the freeway, I could see the drivers bent over an early breakfast, and a thin-browed, pug-faced waitress smoking a cigarette by the kitchen door. It would have been very pleasant to stop and eat three eggs and talk for a while and then go back to bed in the motel. I cut my wheels sharp left at the next crossing, and the tires whined in self-pity: so late, so weary.

And then there’s the marvelous character of Lew Archer: a man who spends too much of his life exploring the darker side of human nature. This case does nothing to elevate Archer’s opinion of people.

The man in the mirror was big and flat-bodied, and lean-faced. One of his gray eyes was larger than the other, and it swelled and wavered like the eye of conscience; the other eye was little, hard and shrewd. I stood still for an instant, caught by my own distorted face, and the room reversed itself like a trick drawing in a psychological test. For an instant I was the man in the mirror, the shadow-figure without a life of his own who peered with one large eye and one very small eye through dirty glass at the dirty lives of people in a very dirty world.

Usually with series characters, we get the crime on hand and a continuation of the private life of the series PI. Not so here. As Archer notes, he’s “without a life of his own.

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