From 1949 to 1976, Ross Macdonald wrote eighteen crime novels featuring the private detective Lew Archer. Over the past couple of years, The Library of America has published eleven in three volumes, the third — and, they report, final — volume out today, featuring “four later novels.”† The first in the collection is Black Money, which I enjoyed immensely while on holiday last month.
Before The Library of America started releasing these collections, I had never read anything by Ross Macdonald, had barely heard of him and his Lew Archer. Now, though, I’m a big fan, excited that I haven’t quite read them all. I love the Southern California setting. In a feat few crime novelists have matched, I admire the central PI a lot. Archer’s quick to observe though he wishes he didn’t have to look. He knows what awful things even good people are capable of, but he hopes that maybe this time they might not have succumbed to their worst tendencies. I admire that, despite having a likable if world-weary central character, Macdonald doesn’t allow Archer’s character to become the focal point of any narrative. Rather, Archer is a lens. We look through him at these characters, and they become the focus of the interesting examinations of humanity and relationships that Macdonald conducts. Indeed, while some larger crimes may be on the periphery in these books, the dynamite that sets everything off is usually lit by everyday, ordinary desperation and sadness. This sadness is usually latent, lying just out of sight until something violently brings it to the surface, and the characters become desperate again to bury it.
All of this — home-grown troubles, loneliness, the inability to get out from under the past — streams through Black Money, one of Macdonald’s personal favorites among his own novels and certainly a strong sample if anyone doubts Macdonald’s place in The Library of America.
In Black Money we begin — as these books do and should — with Archer meeting a new client. Here it is Peter Jamiesen, an incredibly wealthy but pathetic young man. Here’s Archer’s first impression:
He looked like money about three generations removed from its source.
Archer doesn’t respect Jamiesen at all throughout the narrative. Jamiesen wallows in self-pity and self-delusion and overeats to hide his insecurities. This unsightly human being may be the source of Archer’s funds, and Archer may have a responsibility to do a specific job for Jamiesen, but he doesn’t have to grovel or even look at the unsightly young man with anything but disgust and disdain. It’s almost like he wants Jamiesen to become offended, grow a backbone, and fire him. But I’m glad that isn’t how the book begins or we might miss this wonderful description of a handshake that shows the disgust with Jamiesen as a person and as a pathetic sample of the wealthy.
“I’m glad to see you.” He let me feel his large amorphous hand.
Jamiesen has just lost his fiance, Virginia Fablon, to a Frenchman named Francis Martel, who has only recently arrived in this wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. Jamiesen tries to convince everyone — himself included — that he isn’t just jealous. He’s really worried about Virginia, certain there’s something phony about this Martel. Martel’s tricked everyone, including the young woman, and Jamiesen cannot stand by and allow someone he loves to be taken advantage of. He wants Archer to do some investigation into Martel’s past.
Naturally, Archer is not so sure his new client is honest about his motives. Jamiesen himself is not convincing evidence that Virginia Fablon gave up anything of great value to chase after Martel. Perhaps she really did fall in love. And Martel does seem to pass perfectly as a French man of the upper class.
Here’s where Archer wants the case to be that simple. But it isn’t, of course. Instead, he starts to uncover a larger web of disappointment and tragedy that goes back eight years, to the night Virginia’s father committed suicide by walking out into the Pacific, a vast, calm body of water that seems to taunt and provoke the inhabitants who live on its shore, near the edge.
Aside from the nice plot and investigating, the book presents a strong perspective of haunting failure. Archer himself, as I mentioned above, is world-weary: “As the century wore on — I could feel it wearing on — angry pointless encounters like this one tended more and more to erupt in violence.” But he’s not the only character going from day to day, wondering what this life is adding up to.
“Do you have a lot of suicides in Montevista?”
“We have our share. You know, when you have money to live on, and a nice house, and good weather most of the time, and still your life goes wrong — well, who can you blame?”
† Here are the titles and contents of each of the three volumes:
- Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s — The Way Some People Die (1951), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Doomsters (1958), and The Galton Case (1959)
- Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s — The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), The Chill (1964), and The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)
- Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels — Black Money (1966), The Instant Enemy (1968), The Goodbye Look (1969), and The Underground Man (1971)
- The seven Lew Archer novels that are not included in these three volumes are: The Moving Target (1949), The Drowning Pool (1950), The Ivory Grin (1952), Find a Victim (1954), The Wycherly Woman (1961), Sleeping Beauty (1973), and The Blue Hammer (1975)