Tag Archives: California

The Pink Hotel: Liska Jacobs

In The Pink Hotel, from Liska Jacobs, newlyweds Kit and Keith Collins arrive for their honeymoon at a prestigious Beverly Hills resort. Keith is the general manager for a mediocre “quaint roadside hotel” in Boonville, a small Northern California town, and Kit is a waitress at the hotel’s restaurant. As a couple, they’ve been together for 5 years, and Kit, fully absorbed into her husband’s career and ambitions is about to embark on a sommelier course. It’s through the hotel restaurant that Keith met the Beaumonts. Mr Beaumont ascertains that Keith intends to take his honeymoon in Napa, and degrading that suggestion, instead proposes they come to the hotel he manages in Beverley Hills. And so the Kit and Keith are at the Pink Hotel; Kit, awed by the ostentatiousness and outrageous prices, thinks this is their honeymoon, and the start of their new life together, but Keith has another agenda; he’s hoping for a job under Beaumont’s tutelage.

It doesn’t take long to see that Kit and Keith are out of their depth, but they don’t seem to realise it. Mr Beaumont has an arrangement with an employee, Coco, and Mrs. Beaumont seems to think she will have a similar arrangement with Keith. As Kit and Keith sink into the opulent lifestyle and let their decadent, new friends pick up the tab, the process of corruption takes place. The idea of a honeymoon recedes farther into the background with morality somewhere in the rear view mirror. Meanwhile, fires are breaking out all over the region and smoke fills the air. The guests sport fancy masks “fashionable with beading or sequins” and the staff have flimsy blue paper masks but some of the guests object to this. Apparently they spoil the ambience. As the fires rage, social unrest builds outside of the hotel grounds.

The novel is at its strongest depicting the almost-desperate desire to belong–to hang onto the ephemeral, temperamental whimsies of the rich. Kit’s caution over the menu prices and Keith’s insistence that the prices don’t matter (while he swallows hard) feel all too real. It’s a once in a lifetime getaway that they will be paying for for years. The desire of the have-nots to mingle with the Mega-Haves is painful. However, the social unrest outside of the hotel and the egregious petty, callous behaviour of the rich, placed the novel into an allegory zone–think Bunuel but updated to modern Beverly Hills. So we have the rich, served by the poor in a lavish enclave. Wildfires rage outside these walls, so the poor and disenfranchised suffer first, but ultimately Climate Change impacts everyone. These parts didn’t work so well for me, and seemed overdone. Even the name Boonville seems trite. I’m not overly fond of allegory (The Pilgrim’s Progress is an exception), and the novel is painfully slow at some points.

Review copy.

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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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High Priest of California: Charles Willeford (1953)

“By nine am the next morning, the sun decide to burn its way through the clouds and let San Francisco take a look at it.”

Used Car salesmen are apparently the High Priest[s] of California, or at least that’s the idea in Charles Willeford’s dark noir novel. The High Priest in this case is San-Francisco based Russell Haxby, a sleazy predator who looks for easy sex and easy marks. And in this world, there’s no shortage of either. Haxby is a strange character. He appears to be-laid back and easy going, but erase that image and think instead of a predator who takes his sweet time tenderizing his prey, and that’s closer to Haxby’s real nature.

The novel opens with a bored Haxby out on the prowl at a dance hall “where men come to pick up something and women come to be picked up.” At first, there seem to be no likely prospects, but he spies an attractive shapely woman in a red suit and asks her to dance. One thing leads to another, and Haxby takes the woman, Alyce, for dinner and drinks. He “pumps” her about her living situation, and after discovering that she lives with an older, female cousin, Ruthie, Haxby thinks this will be a “cinch.” Once inside her apartment, Haxby is repelled. The place smells like a “zoo,” or more precisely of cat, several tomcats, which Alyce subsequently introduces to Haxby. Haxby decides that Alyce is “too weird” for him, but partly because he’s bored and partly because he doesn’t have any other better prospects, Haxby relentlessly, gradually, dissolves Alyce’s resistance to any form of intimate, physical contact. She’s a “new type,” for Haxby. In time, Haxby learns Alyce’s big secret which explains her reluctance to have any sort of relationship, and her apparent abhorrence of sex. But her indifference to sex and fundamental naivete merely eggs Haxby on.

Given that this is written by Charles Willeford, I expected murder around the corner. Haxby is a violent man who vents his pent-up frustrations, sexual and otherwise, on lowly males who won’t put up a defense. At the same time, he listens to classical music to soothe the beast within, and reads James Joyce. Willeford skillfully describes a sleazy world which is ruled by the meanest, unscrupulous people who prey on the weak. Haxby is a predator, circling Alyce until her scruples simply wear down. At one point, he considers unzipping her housecoat but decides it would be “too easy.” Part of the fun for Haxby is seducing Alyce with murmurs of love everlasting, and watching her swallow his spiel.

We see Haxby on the car lot, flipping prices on various heaps, and waiting for returning servicemen with deep pockets to buy without too many questions. Alyce’s cousin, Ruthie, an older blowsy woman, is seeing a married man who is waiting for his invalid wife to die. He’s not much of a prize, but Ruthie has put the time in to the relationship and expects the pay off soon. There’s no room for tenderness. Innocence… well that’s a sign of weakness.

Women don’t eat much, foolish, foolish. I believe a person should take advantage of anything that gives them pleasure. When you figure that this rock we’re living on is spinning around once a day, every day, 365 spins a year, and with each day you get a day older. What the hell does an extra inch or two around the waistline mean? An extra inch or two, period.

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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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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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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.

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The Beggar’s Pawn: John L’Heureux

They first met Reginald Parker ages ago–in the innocent part of the year 2001– before disaster struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at a time when it was still possible to think ours was a virtuous country, and everyone liked us and terrorists were just a plot complication in the movies. We had no idea then what forms terrorism could take, at home and away, in that innocent time ages ago.

John L’ Heureux’s novel The Beggar’s Pawn gives a whole new meaning to the expression: home invasion. This is the story of a happily married, affluent couple in their 60s whose lives are slowly invaded by a casual acquaintance. While the plot is deceptively simple, various tangled moral dilemmas complicate our characters’ lives: the vagaries of helping those less fortunate, just how involved should we become with the problems of others, transparency in marriage vs keeping the peace, what do parents ‘owe’ to children, what do children ‘owe’ to parents, when does helping one’s children start ruining their characters, at what age (if any) do people stop blaming their parents and start taking responsibility for their own actions? All these dilemmas are faced by the two main characters, and the result is a splendid book–at once very funny and terrifying. The sort of thing that happens in these pages could easily happen to many of us. I loved this book for its approach to one of my pet theories: Don’t tolerate the intolerable.

The book opens in 2001, with 65-year-old Stanford professor David Holliss and his wife Maggie who are empty nesters living in “professorville,” in a large, beautiful home in Palo Alto. The house was bought a long time ago with Maggie’s trust fund money (always a sore spot with David) and they raised three ungrateful, awful, privileged children in that house: Sedge, Will and Claire.

Serial monogamist handsome Sedge “would marry an unsuspecting girl, buy a house, he could always depend on the parents in a pinch, and settle down forever with his new bride. Within the next year or two, Sedge and his wife would decide it had all been a well-intentioned, glittering mistake, though of course they would remain good friends. Divorce, division of the spoils, alimony for a specified time. Never any children so there was no need for child support.

Will, the supposedly perfect son, tends to take the moral high ground with his family. Like his father, he’s a professor, but he lives in England with his British house and his growing family. Since Will lives in England, his parents don’t see him or the grandkids much. Finally there’s arguably the most trouble, and troubled, of the bunch: Claire. Claire and her abrasive “fierce integrity” (rude) drifts from one extreme to another. Unable to find a job, she joined a commune, and had a child she abandoned. (This child eventually attended Princeton paid for, of course by the Hollisses.) After the commune, Claire has a lesbian relationship with a theatre director but moved on to “The Little Sisters of the Poor in Oklahoma. She made a retreat at their convent and after the 8 days were over, she asked to be admitted as a novice. The Mother Superior was an old hand at delayed vocation.” The fact that she wasn’t a Catholic seemed to be of no importance to Claire who answered the Mother Superior’s questions with her typical aggressive hostility. So much for the convent.

Thank god the kids are gone, and now the Hollisses share their home with a puppy, Dickens, a dog that they were supposed to just take care of while their son Sedge went through his 4th divorce. All the trouble starts in David and Maggie’s tranquil enviable life when they have a chance meeting with Reginald Parker while walking the dog. It’s a Spot-The-Looney situation. Maggie thinks Reginald is “nice,” but David has some intuitive feeling that the man is “trouble,” although all he can pinpoint is that Reginald’s hair is too long and he’s “intrusive.” As a long-time married couple, both Maggie and David have well-established roles. She’s friendly and more tolerant and David is the curmudgeon.

The few casual meetings between Reginald and David and Maggie are limited, but it doesn’t take much to realise that the man is a liar, hostile and on drugs. He patently and nastily rubs in what he can and can’t afford. (He rubs it in that he can’t afford a dog which may be what happens when you siphon your wife’s meagre income towards cocaine.) He always leaves the Hollisses with a definite uncomfortable feeling. His words are moored with conventional politeness, and weighted down by guilt over their material situation, the Hollisses tolerate Reginald, who latches on like a blood-sucking parasite when really they should tell him to fuck off. But one day in 2009, Reginald, after scoping out the Hollisses’ home, saves Dickens from being run over. This incident acts as a lever for Parker to insinuate himself into the lives of the Hollisses. Soon he hits Maggie up for a loan, and then invites them to a horrible dinner with his downtrodden wife Helen, who’s employed part-time at Walmart and their poor neglected daughter, Iris. From this point, Reginald Parker becomes obsessed with the Hollisses, and the situation isn’t helped by Claire who has a sexual relationship with Reginald. Claire loves cruelly ridiculing her parents while blaming them for her messed-up self. So Reginald moves to start writing a book based on the Hollisses.

The novel paces Reginald’s persistent encroaching aggression against the way the Hollisses roll over rather than confront. I’m reminded of Mon Oncle D’Amerique and dominance/avoidance in human behaviour. There were times I laughed out loud at this book, thanks mostly to the appalling Holliss children, all with chips on their shoulders springing from imagined hardship childhoods. They refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their actions, demanding, and taking for granted, endless handouts even as they bitch at (and about) their parents. Claire, for example, claims that she suffered “familial torture while she was a child. She had been obliged to attend concerts, the opera, and on one terrible occasion, the ballet.” The sections with the children are funny–even though the children are appalling in their presumptive privilege for which they ALL blame their parents. Reginald hates the Hollisses for what they represent, and he begins blaming them for his choices. As his obsession with the Hollisses grows along with the idea that everything in HIS life is THEIR fault, it’s almost as though he becomes the fourth child. He demands they become his saviours and just like the Holliss children, any help given to Reginald is not enough–rather the opposite. His belligerence, bitterness and aggression grow. … The book was so funny at times, that its dark turn is shocking. There are many moral lessons to carry away from this entertaining, engrossing book.

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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.

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Filed under Fiction, Macdonald Ross

The Spectator Bird: Wallace Stegner (1976)

“At our age, news is all bad. I don’t like standing in line for the guillotine.”

It’s the 1970s, and 69-year-old, retired literary agent Joe Allston lives with his wife Ruth near Palo Alto, California. Their only son, Curtis died years earlier while surfing, maybe an accident, maybe not, and now Joe and Ruth live a quiet life. Joe, “irritable and depressed,” is pushed by his wife into gathering together all of the papers and notes from his career in order to write a memoir:

The writers I represented left their monuments, consequential or otherwise. I might have done the same if I had not, at the bottom of the Depression, been forced to chose whether I would be a talent broker or a broke talent. I drifted into my profession as a fly lands on flypaper, and my monument is not in the libraries, or in men’s minds, or even in the paper-recycling plants, but in those files. They are the only thing that prove I ever existed.

Joe who sees himself as a “wise cracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people and a tourist in his own,” has many regrets about his life; he feels as though he’s been a “spectator bird” and “that there had not been one significant event in life he planned.” As Joe mulls over the dullness of his life and the road that brought him to this point, a postcard arrives from Astrid, a Danish countess the Allstons met during a holiday decades earlier. The postcard revives old memories and Joe digs out a journal he kept of the trip. The trip to Denmark was partly for Joe to investigate his roots and discover exactly why his mother left Denmark, setting sail for America at age 16. The trip is also an escape from the guilt and regrets over their estranged son’s death. While the holiday should be restorative, it becomes an unsettling Jamesian exploration of the Innocent American Abroad.

Joe narrates The Spectator Bird, and when the novel opens, it’s clear that Joe is obsessed with aging and dying. This state of affairs isn’t helped by the fact that a neighbour is dying of cancer, or that Ruth visits the local care home and encourages Joe to do the same. Then on top of that, another neighbour, an elderly doctor who is falling apart slowly but still manages to put a brave face on it, harasses Joe about his morbid frame of mind.

I had been sitting on the old timbers for about ten minutes when Ben Alexander drove in from the county road in his convertible. His top was down, his hair was tangled, and he had Edith Patterson in the seat beside him, looking like a racoon in her wraparound Hollywood shades. It was all so young and gay and California that I had to laugh. Ben is the very chief of the tribe that makes old age out to be a time of liberation. He is writing a book about it.

Ben and Ruth can see that Joe is having a miserable time aging, and they both have strategies, which always fail, to shake Joe from this frame of mind. The result is that Ruth has become more of a mother to Joe–so much so that he keeps her at arm’s length emotionally as he struggles with regrets and aging. Poor Ruth, who likes to air all emotions, has the patience of a saint. We see Joe in the present day, uncomfortable in a shifting social environment, reluctant to be around young people as they remind him of what he’s lost. He wonders if they notice him, and at the same time when he learns of a neighbour’s imminent demise he can’t confront the reality of death and instead finds it easier to pretend all is normal.

Getting old is like standing in a long, slow line. You wake up out of the shuffle and torpor only at those moments when the line moves you one step closer to the window.

The book goes back and forth between 1970s California and Joe’s reading of the 1954 journal which Ruth insists be read aloud after she spies it in Joe’s hands. Joe does so with some reluctance as it reveals both his state of mind at the time and some rather unsavoury events that took place.

All too often authors use journals from the past or an unexpected postcard as a cheap segue into the past. Here the past and the present are perfectly and skillfully blended as we see Joe in his 40s and Joe decades later farther down the road as he faces old age. This is an incredibly introspective novel, told from Joe’s often morbid view, and that morbid view, particularly striking on the subject of age, is alleviated by Joe’s self-deprecating humour. Since this is Joe’s story, Ruth is an appendage–the little woman in the background and while she sighs a lot at Joe’s attitude to life, we never really get to know her. But then I don’t think Joe knows her either. … I can’t imagine that they had much of an emotional life together. It can’t have been easy being married to Joe. I listened to the audio book version which was beautifully read by Edward Herrmann, but unfortunately Ruth’s voice comes across as simpering.

But apart from those criticisms, I loved this book and enjoyed it far more than I expected to. This is a sombre examination of the life of one ordinary man–nothing heroic in his past, no great deeds, but as he ages and sees that nothing of him will remain after his death, he is full of regrets. This is a man whose choices were inseparable from, and seminal to, his character.

My commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue. There are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better good and good, but why cry over it twenty years later? Because in every choice there is a component maybe a big component, of pain .

 

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Filed under Fiction, Stegner Wallace