The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald (1962) The Library of America -- Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s (2016) aa pp
Last year, The Library of America welcomed the great, though relatively unknown — at least, by me and others in my circle — crime writer Ross Macdonald to their line, publishing Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, which included The Way Some People Die (1951), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Doomsters (1958), and The Galton Case (1959), each featuring Macdonald’s PI Lew Archer. This year, they’ve followed up with another volume that includes three novels from the early 1960s, “early” hopefully meaning that there will be another volume of the “late” 1960s novels. These three novels — The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), The Chill (1964), and The Far Side of the Dollar (1965) — also feature the increasingly complex Archer.
As I mentioned above, in my own circle Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer are not well known. Coming a generation after Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett and his Sam Spade, who were center stage during the boom of crime fiction and Hollywood noir in the 1930s and 1940s, Macdonald had to defend his choice to write crime novels, as if the genre were fully tapped. And surely for many, it was tough to come out from the shadow of those crime giants and create something new; Macdonald notes that it was hard for him, but, after much work, he did it, and he recognized how powerful detective fiction could be, functioning as “a kind of welder’s mask enabling writers to handle dangerously hot material.” His books received acclaim not just from crime aficionados but also from such literary legends as Eudora Welty, who struck up a nice correspondence with Macdonald . . . and they might have fallen in love. You can see those in last year’s Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, edited by Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs and Macdonald biographer (and the editor of this Library of America series) Tom Nolan.
I — and my circle, apparently — have really been missing out, so below I want to write about the beginning of my relationship with Macdonald and Archer by way of the wonderful The Zebra-Striped Hearse.
One thing that struck me immediately when reading The Zebra-Striped Hearse was how well Lew Archer fit into the PI mold while still being his own unique creation. He’s pithy and sharp like the PIs of yore, but rather than call him world-weary I’d call him world-wary. He’s seen a lot of terrible things, knows what people are capable of, but he also cares a great deal, despite his wishes, even, about the troubled folks he runs into day in and day out. He recognizes the awful things these people are doing to each other, how they themselves may have stepped into a mess of their own making, but that doesn’t prevent him from caring — perhaps it even makes him care more, these wretched creatures.
The book begins much like a classic PI novel: out of the blue, a woman Archer does not know has come to the PI’s shabby office. This is Mrs. Blackwell, showing up a half hour before her husband’s own scheduled appointment with Archer. She says that her husband is coming to ask Archer to dig up dirt on his daughter (her step-daughter) Harriet’s new boyfriend, ruining yet another of this girl’s relationships. She just wants Archer to know the context before her husband arrives. Before Mrs. Blackwell can finish her conversation with Archer, though, Colonel Blackwell appears, and a marital squabble — one of many — happens while Archer waits patiently.
Archer tells Colonel Blackwell that he will look into this new man, Burke Damis, but he isn’t going to be part of a smear campaign and drum up a dark past. As he begins his investigation, though, he quickly discovers a family on the brink of self-destruction, even finding Colonel Blackwell pointing a gun at Damis. Archer quells this particular fire, but Damis and Harriet leave then and there, to who-knows-where. Now Archer finds himself trying to find out more about this Damis, who has a dark past that doesn’t need much drumming up, as well as trying to find out where Damis and Harriet have gone. The pathway — which goes from the San Francisco suburbs, to Mexico, to Nevada, and back again — gets ugly as Archer finds a string of murders, all with links to Damis, this stranger who is definitely working under an alias. Increasingly desperate to find Harriet, wondering if it’s already too late, Archer works day and night, a fitting tie to this particular reader who also desperately wanted to find Harriet, and who read day and night in the process.
It’s a fantastic plot, but what makes me even more pleased with The Zebra-Sriped Hearse is the exploration of these characters. Macdonald, writing in the early 1960s, recognized that the traditional family had major rifts, and the youth of the day were wandering away — rightly or wrongly, to a better place or to their own destruction, as the case may be — and we care about what happens because we feel Archer’s motives: sensitivity, sorrow, worry.