Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dead for a ducat

Like so many detectives before me, I found myself searching for a man's lost daughter. My case began last year. The girl I sought was a Californian, 17 years old. She lived in Santa Barbara. One winter night, she was driving home drunk from a party and struck and killed an 11-year-old boy. If I were the Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett's detective, the girl would be the wealthy daughter of a Manchu provincial leader now living in exile up in San Francisco. If I were Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, the girl would be the reckless daughter of an oil tycoon (…) Finally, if I were Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald's gentle but edgy investigator (…), the girl would be the daughter of a Santa Teresa pharmacist who had discovered that her father was not her father, but a man being blackmailed for 17 years by the president of a shipping company because her real father is the president's brother, the captain of an oil tanker who knocked up the girl's mother when he discovered her as a young stowaway aboard his ship hiding from her boyfriend, the pharmacist, who was then a young bank robber on the lam from a foiled job where he shot and killed a teller who was the mother of the captain's wife, who in turn was mother of the little boy the girl ran down (her half-brother).

Raymond Chandler is known for creating mean streets on which his detective, Phillip Marlowe, would walk. Ross Macdonald, however, took the hardboiled genre in a new direction by creating Lew Archer, a private detective who was sensitive. The Zebra-Striped Hearse was published in 1962, three years after 1959’s The Galton Case, which kicked off this series of hardboiled reviews. Perhaps it’s appropriate to come full circle and end this series by returning to the beginning… if that makes sense. If it doesn’t…. hey, it’s a Ross Macdonald novel.

Which should not be taken as a negative thing. Ross Macdonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse is an intricately plotted book that keeps twisting and turning long after you think it’s finished. The story revolves around Colonel Blackwell, who consults Lew Archer about his daughter, Harriet. A month ago, she met a man named Burke Damis in Mexico, and now she wants to marry him. But the Colonel, overly protective of his daughter, senses that the young man is as phony as a three-dollar bill, and he hires Archer to look into Damis’ past life in order to uncover just what he is up to and expose him to Harriet.

The resulting plot is a complex one, and Macdonald uses it to tell a powerful story. These aren’t the mean, gangster-infested streets of Raymond Chandler. Rather, Macdonald takes crime and puts it into the neighbourhood, where even that nice old lady who lived down the street might have some connection with the murder in the newspaper headlines. In a way, the story is similar to that of The Galton Case; both novels evoke the loss of a child and the loss of a parent, both of which Ross Macdonald experienced. In both, Lew Archer sometimes seems more like a family therapist than a traditional private eye. Some use this to criticise Macdonald, saying that he wrote the same book over and over again. I can see the point, but from what I’ve seen, Macdonald uses a somewhat similar formula but produces something brilliant both times. The result is highly readable, literate, and there’s a note of genuine passion underscoring the book. That kind of combination is just outstanding.

Incidentally, I was expecting the titular “zebra-striped hearse” to be some crazy metaphor about life and death… but it’s an actual hearse, and it has actual zebra stripes. It pops up every once in a while as Lew Archer investigates. I just thought I’d throw that out there for all those scratching their heads, trying to come up with an explanation for the title.

You might sum everything up by saying that Ross Macdonald may be the hardboiled author for those who don’t like hardboiled authors. His books are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most in this hardboiled series of reviews. Lew Archer is a decent sort in a tragic world, trying to help the victims of violent crime while bringing the guilty party to justice. In The Zebra-Striped Hearse, Macondald’s mystery is fairly clued, with complexity that could match wits with a Golden Age author any day. But most intriguing of all is the way Macdonald uses the mystery to create a small piece of art that wouldn’t disgrace the pages of a “serious” literary author. The theme of loss and the family struggling to stay together have poignant notes to it that I like very much. I can’t think of something the book does wrong… and that’s always a good sign. I highly recommend it; I think I would apply the “masterpiece” tag here as well. Ross Macdonald apparently considered it one of his best books, and it was nominated for “Best Novel” at the 1963 Edgar Awards. It was beaten by Ellis Peters’ Death and the Joyful Woman, which I have yet to read…

To read The Zebra-Striped Hearse, I relied largely on an audio recording I’ve taken a great fancy to. It is complete and unabridged, but read by a full cast, with Harris Yulin as Lew Archer. The musical scores are well-placed, and the sound effects (like someone knocking at the door or the ocean being heard in the distance) really enhanced the reading experience for me. If you get a chance to listen to this recording, I highly recommend it. There is even a brief, half-hour long biographical sketch of Ross Macdonald at the conclusion of the programme, with biographer Tom Nolan joining in as well as someone who sounds eerily like Wallace Shawn, who played Vizzini the Sicilian in The Princess Bride. (No, I am not shutting up about that movie any time soon.) I didn’t catch the name.


  1. Here's what I've read by Ross Macdonald:

    The Drowning Pool 1950
    The Ivory Grin 1952
    The Galton Case 1959
    The Wycherly Woman 1961
    The Chill 1964
    The Goodbye Look 1969

    Only a third of the Archer books, so I need to read some more. I have The Barbarous Coast, The Doomsters, Hearse and Black Money. Far Side of the Dollar is supposed to be good too, also The Way Some People Die. Some people recommend the late ones, but I wasn't encouraged by The Goodbye Look.

    Meet Me at the Morgue and The Ferguson Affair are supposed to me mature, non-Archer Macdonald.

  2. Hi Patrick, this is one of my favourites of the Archer series. I was about 18 when I first started reading them, after seeing the movie version (which not coincidentally was written by William Goldman, author of THE PRINCESS BRIDE ...) and I'm fascinated to hear about the audio rendition as I have never come across these - and I see Ed Asner is one of the voice artists which is another bonus.

    Wonderful stuff - but just wait until you read THE CHILL!

  3. Your review makes this book sound like a companion to the The Far Side of the Dollar, which I thought was an excellent mixture of hardboiled story telling and orthodox plotting, and just might be enough to make me pick up another Ross MacDonald again.

    By the way, I love the title of this book!

  4. Barzun and Taylor also note the similarity, as I recollect.

  5. @Curt
    Thanks for the tips. Macdonald seems to me a new favourite of mine. :)

    "The Princess Bride" keeps popping up on this blog, doesn't it? I wonder if I read through all my posts and tagged the ones with "Princess Bride" references, how many tags would I have to add? Um... nevermind, there's 94 of them.

    Glad to hear my review is as enticing as I hoped it would be. :) The title is definitely a good one, one of the reasons I picked this book up off the shelf.

  6. How true... A very apt assessment of Ross Macdonald books. I read them every 2-3 years and find the same beauty again and again.
    However, your enthusiasm for the Hearse will be divided as you read The Goodbye Look, The Blue Hammer, etc.