I always bring more than I can read when I travel, but this past trip east for the holiday I read three rather short novels. Conveniently, they were all in a single compilation:
Archer at Large or The Creepy Face Book. The author photo on the back dust jacket is very similar to that distorted image on the front, which is not the best choice, but whatever.
Anyway, three books!
I happen to like Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels. They're wonderfully written, have great characters and the mysteries are presented as revelations of character rather than puzzles to be solved. They're dated, naturally; all three of these novels were published in the sixties, but they're still available in new editions from Black Lizard.
Here's the opening to The Galton Case, the first novel in the book:
The law offices of Wellesley and Sable were over a savings bank on the main street of Santa Theresa. Their private elevator lifted you from a bare little lobby into an atmosphere of elegant simplicity. It created the impression that after years of struggle you were rising effortlessly to your natural level, one of the chosen.
Facing the elevator, a woman with carefully dyed red hair was toying with the keyboard of an electric typewriter. A bowl full of floating begonias sat on the desk in front of her. Audubon prints picked up the colors and tossed them discreetly around the oak walls. A Harvard chair stood casually in one corner.
I sat down on it, in the interests of self-improvement, and picked up a fresh copy of the Wall Street Journal. Apparently this was the right thing to do. The red-headed secretary stopped typing and condescended to notice me.
Here's the opening to the second novel, The Chill:
The heavy red-figured drapes over the courtroom windows were incompletely closed against the sun. Yellow daylight leaked in and dimmed the electric bulbs in the high ceiling. It picked out random details in the room: the glass water cooler standing against the panel wall opposite the jury box, the court reporter's carmine-tipped fingers playing over her stenotype machine, Mrs. Perrine's experienced eyes watching me across the defense table.
It was nearly noon on the second and last day of her trial. I was the final witness for the defense. Her attorney had finished questioning me. The deputy D.A. waived cross-examination, and several of the jurors looked at him with puzzled frowns. The judge said I could go.
And here's the opening to the third and last novel in the collection, Black Money:
I'd been hearing about the Tennis Club for years, but I'd never been inside of it. It's courts and bungalows, its swimming pool and cabanas and pavilions, were disposed around a cove of the Pacific a few miles south of the Los Angeles County border. Just parking my Ford in the asphalt lot beside the tennis courts made me feel like less of a dropout from the affluent society.
The carefully groomed woman at the front desk of the main building told me that Peter Jamieson was probably in the snack bar. I walked around the end of the fifty-meter pool, which was enclosed on three sides by cabanas. On the fourth side the sea gleamed through a ten-foot wire fence like a blue fish alive in a net. A few dry bathers were lying around as if the yellow eye of the sun had hypnotized them.
All tyops mine.
Me, I think those are pretty good. It was pretty tough to work on my copy edit and see how many times I chose the lightning bug over the lightning while also reading those books. I once read someone say that Lew Archer was more of a witness than a protagonist--that all he did in these books was travel from person to person, slowing uncovering their stories but doing little more than recording, not affecting them in any way.
I don't think that's quite fair. In fact, I think most private eye novels are basically stories about stories--or more accurately, about several stories that turn out to be one story. The most powerful effect Archer has on the other characters in the novel is the way he digs into their past. All three books feature a murder in the present and a murder in the past--and only Archer seems to realize that the two are connected.
The structure of the three books are very similar. After each two-paragraph intro above, Archer meets his employer, and he's hired to solve a case. In The Galton Case he's asked to find an heir missing for 20 years, but his employer doesn't expect him to succeed. In The Chill he's asked to find a bride who ran out on her husband on her honeymoon. In Black Money he's asked to investigate a suave, probably-phony Frenchman who has seduced a young man's girlfriend.
Then, the book plays out pretty much like this: Archer talks to someone for a couple of pages. Archer decides to talk to someone else. There's a one-paragraph description of him traveling to this next person, then several more pages of dialog. Two or three times in the story, Archer will look for clues at a crime scene without anyone to talk to, and once or twice there will be some sort of physical confrontation. The violence is over quickly each time and is never part of the climax. The climax is always a reveal of the deepest, most painful secret a character possesses.
Which I love.
Of the three, Black Money is probably the weakest. While the characters and their history is just as twisty and weird, Archer actually doles out advice to the supporting cast. I'm not looking to read about a PI/therapist/life coach and I'm not interested in Archer's philosophy of life. Just show the disfunction. Don't try to solve it.
Flawed as it is, though, it's still head and shoulders above many modern mysteries I've read.
The Chill is the strongest. The characters are deeply screwed up, the mystery doesn't feel forced and the finale gave me goosebumps.
Check them out. They're powerful examples of a genre at a specific place and time--L.A. at a time when everyone still wore hats everywhere, but you can feel the cultural changes pressing everyone. It's great stuff.