“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:
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.