THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE (1962) by Ross Macdonald

This review is my final contribution to Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme for her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week reaches the letter Z. It’s been an amazing ride for six months and I am pleased as punch to be able to say that I never missed a week – thanks as always to our hostess. I also offer it as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott over at her Pattinase blog.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet, old man.”

In The Zebra-Striped Hearse Lew Archer, perhaps the most humanistic of the PIs fashioned in the wake of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, falls slightly in love with his client’s wife. The rather absurd Colonel Blackwell, who tries to regiment his family as he would a battalion, wants to stop his daughter Harriet from getting married. She is due to come into a large inheritance soon, on her 25th birthday, and is so desperate to get away from his influence that she has become engaged to a painter she only met a few weeks earlier. Blackwell’s wife comes to see Archer to provide a little perspective, leading to a massive family squabble when her husband arrives. This sets the fractious domestic tone for the rest of the novel … which then turns criminous once the bodies start to pile up.

“The people in this novel are fortunately all imaginary …” – from Ross Macdonald’s opening disclaimer

Macdonald (aka Kenneth Millar) came to maturity as a writer in the late 1950s with The Doomsters and especially The Galton Case (which I previously reviewed here), initiating a series of novels exploring the postwar generation gap with increasingly complex Oedipal narratives of tangled family dramas, rooted in a tragic past that Archer must uncover to liberate the souls of at least some of the participants. The author by this stage in his career was making recurring use of modern variations on the tropes of classical Greek tragedy and bringing them up to date – in this case offering a modern variant on the tale of Elektra. The structure of all his later books involved detailed investigations into the backgrounds of the characters, who usually prove to be interconnected in surprising ways. We meet a variety of drop-out from the mainstream, young and old, beach bums and drunks, all trying to either find themselves or hide from their past, all adroitly evoked with a touch of poetry and without a trace of sentimentality.

“The sun was low in the west, and it glared like a searchlight through barred clouds.”

As soon as we meet Harriet’s shifty and mysterious boyfriend ‘Burke Damis’ (clearly an alias) and learn that he has links to Mexico, where her mother, the Colonel’s first wife, is also based, the experienced Macdonald reader will assume that some distant family connection will eventually emerge as part of a hidden pattern – and they would be right, though perhaps not as they might first have imagined. However, for most of the book’s length Archer is chasing Damis and Harriet, who have stormed off after a violent argument with Blackwell which climaxed with him actually pointing a rifle at the younger man. Archer is hired to get her back and find out more about her artist boyfriend. Archer predictably gets fired but the Colonel’s less excitable wife then re-hires him to finish the job.

“A kind of screaming silence radiated from the place where he stood”

In these books the plots always involve hidden identities and the theme of the buried past though it’s the strong characterisation that draws you in as much as the pull of the narrative as Archer probes and digs to find some sort of illumination. The obvious Macdonald protagonist should be ‘Damis’, a talented artist who is also very clearly troubled, but his character is presented elliptically so as to keep real empathy at arm’s length. He is attractive but preys on lonely women, is devoted to his art but has no problem sponging off everyone he knows for money. Thus we have little invested in such a seemingly despicable character and instead follow Archer in a manhunt that collects evidence of several murders as it goes along. The chase element is sustained for a surprisingly long stretch as Archer zigzags between San Francisco, Mexico and Nevada uncovering many, many strands – all of which keep coming back to ‘Damis’, whose real identity is a central puzzle. He travelled to and from Mexico under the identity of Quincy Ralph Jones, a man whose body is later found murdered – and before long Archer uncovers what ‘Damis’ is really running away from. Identified as one Bruce Campion, he is accused of having strangled his wife two months before and has been on the move ever since. Archer is now almost as desperate as Blackwell to find Harriet and tracks the couple’s movements to her father’s holiday home on Lake Tahoe where he retrieves her hat, with some of her hair, scalp and blood still attached. It seems that Campion is truly unhinged …

“The long loops were intersecting, and I was the point of intersection”

This novel was singled out for praise by Julian Symons as amongst the finest written by Macdonald during that great golden period between his breakthrough with The Galton Case (1958) and the rapturous critical reception afforded to The Underground Man in 1972. It is very cleverly constructed and the second part of the novel in particular delivers a series of great character moments as well as an endlessly evolving and surprising plot, the theme of broken families and lonely youths explored with sensitivity and artistry. And in its final few pages twists the story splendidly to reveal a well-hidden murderer too. It is perhaps not my most absolute favourite of the Lew Archer novels – pride of place probably still belongs to The Chill and Black Money (these are the two that William Goldman thinks ‘do it’ for most people and turns casual readers into genuine fans) – but The Zebra-Striped Hearse is an excellent book. It is certainly deserving of attention on the blogosphere, and I’m glad to add myself to those who have already written about it.

“The horrors will pass. Tragedy is like a sickness, and it passes. Even the horrors in the Greek plays are long since past”

I chose this book as the title seemed the perfect way to finish off the Alphabet of Crime meme in style though it is hardly a neglected title – far from it in fact. For instance Michael Slint provided a fine overview the year before that at Only Detect while the Spinster Aunt has reviewed it twice (see here). King of the Nerds also provides an interesting overview here, despite managing to misspell the author’s name throughout. There’s also a quickie by Marvin Lachman with some great covers to be found over at the Mysteryfile. The book is also available as an unabridged audiobook performed by a full cast – for a review of that see what Craig Clarke had to say over at the Somebody Dies blog while Patrick also reviewed it last year for his blog At the Scene of the Crime. A final point of trivia – my English edition of this book, the Alison & Busby reprint from 1992 (the cover of which is the one at very top of this review) has a rather curious feature: along with a few unfortunate typos in the text, the blurb on the back bares no relation whatsoever to the book itself – it is in fact the synopsis for the same writer’s late masterpiece, The Underground Man. Didn’t affect my enjoyment one bit though.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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32 Responses to THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE (1962) by Ross Macdonald

  1. TracyK says:

    This is a great book for this letter. I considered it (early on) but I am going to read that series from the beginning (again) so didn’t want to get ahead of myself.

    Great review, great overview. And all those wonderful covers. What will you do with all your time without the Crime Fiction Alphabet every week?

    • TracyK, thank you, the Lew Archer series is truly wonderful, isn’t it? I always re-read these with great pleasure and admiration for Macdonad’s singular achievement in the genre. It is hard to remember life before the Alphabet of Crime … but in fact in 2013 I am really going to be stepping back from challenges as I have definitely been feeling the strain of late!

      • TracyK says:

        And all of these comments remind me that I want to read more Margaret Millar also … I have read some but surely not all of her books.

        I do sympathize. While keeping up with the Crime Fiction Alphabet I was very over-extended. And I intend to commit to less challenges in 2013 also.

        • She was pretty prolific up to 1964, with at least one book a year – then there were only 2 on the following 12 years though she did pick up again in her last few year – her last is from 1986 I think. Both the Millars are splendid authors. In her case it;s only a couple of her earliest and her very last that I haven’t read – in his case I think maybe there are only a couple of early titles written under his own name – but they all bear re-reading and there are far too few mystery authors you can say that about!

  2. Sergio – A fine, fine choice for Z! I’ve always liked Lew Archer’s moral compass so I’m glad you profiled a novel that features him. This series – both the novels and the short stories – is as strong on characters I think as any of the hardboiled PI series of the time, and I do like Macdonald/Millar’s looks at family dysfunction.

    • Thanks Margot – I have recently been re-reading both these books and Margaret Millar’s and they do provide fascinating and near complimentary views of postwar America. I have not re-read Macdonald’s short stories in a very, very long time – must pull those out, you’re right!

  3. Anne H says:

    It’s years since I read any of Ross Macdonald’s books, having read them all, some more than once, and kept them. Time to go back to him, perhaps. He is one of the greats, and I recall The Zebra-Striped Hearse as a particular favourite.

    • It was great to re-read this one Anne H, for me in particular since the last time was in an Italian translation (depends what country I’m in at the time) – Macdonald was just a true master of the American detective story. Always great to be in such good hands.

  4. Patrick says:

    I love, love, LOVE this book. Then again, a large portion of that is the brilliant audio recording I listened to, which was unabridged but read with a full cast and with subtle sound effects (door knocking, ocean in background, etc.). It really made me feel like I was in the novel. A terrific book, and a great way to wrap up the challenge!

    • Thanks Patrick – I envy you getting the audio version as you make it sound so good and I love audio drama. These are only available on cassette tape though, is that right? I just can’t play those anymore unfortunately. if they’re on CD anywhere or MP3 please do let me know mate!

  5. Colin says:

    Very interesting. I’ve never actually read anything by Ross MacDonald but I do have a copy of Sleeping Beauty. I think this books have been recently reprinted so maybe this is a good time to take the plunge.

    • Hello mate – you have a real treat ahead of you. Sleeping Beauty was his penultimate novel and is fascinating for its environmental theme, which was uncommon at the time but reflected the activism of Macdonald and his wife (the great novelist Margaret Millar). There is a big difference between the early, more straightforward novels published between The Moving Target in 1949 (and which became that terrific flick Harper starring Paul Newman) and The Drowning Pool (a less good flick starring Newman) the following year and the four that followed and then those books written after The Doomsters in 1958. They are all very good though.

      • Colin says:

        I’ve seen the two Newman movies several times but never got round to any of the books for some reason. The new Penguin reprints look very attractive I have to say.

        • I see what you mean – pretty stylish. In the 70s they were all reprinted in the UK by Fontana with covers featuring extreme closeups that were notable for slightly more crass reasons, though many are genuinely effective. Here is a link to several of these …The Ivory Grin

  6. The Zebra-Striped Hearse is one of Ross Macdonald’s best Lew Archer novels. Some would argue THE DOOMSTERS is the best book in the series, but this book is right up there. There’s a consensus now that Macdonald suffered from Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia in the 1970s. A sad end to a great writer…

    • This is certainly one of his best – The Chill remains my favourite though, the one that seems to truly sum up his best qualities. Margaret Millar spoke movingly in an essay of the casual moment when he called her by name late in life, somethign he hadn’t been able to do for a long time. Well worth tracking down Ralph Sipper’s book of essays, Inward Journey: Ross Macdonald (1984).

  7. John says:

    Like Colin I know Lew Archer from the two Newman movies. I have never read one of the novels! I have, however, read one short story. I know Millar’s early work prior to Archer, though – TROUBLE FOLLOWS ME and THE DARK TUNNEL. Clearly, I am overdue for a visit to the Lew Archer books. I have a complete set in paperback I bought at a book sale a few years ago. I had always planned on reading THE GALTON CASE, but I may just go for this one first.

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks again for citing my review. Just last week, I saw a performance of “Electra.” Now your commentary makes me want to go back and trace the points of convergence between that ancient play and this eminently modern novel. I haven’t read every Lew Archer book, but I’ve read “The Chill,” and I agree that it’s probably Macdonald’s masterpiece. But any Archer novel from “Galton Case” onward will hook the reader who is ready to be hooked.

  9. Strong narrative and characterisation are enough to make me sit through a book and even finish it in one or two sittings. Lew Archer, about whom I have read much in recent months, seems like a very interesting character though I admit not having read any of Ross Macdonald’s novels in spite of being in possession of THE UNDERGROUND MAN and THE MOVING TARGET for several months now. I found the plot in the novel under review a trifle convoluted which is, of course, just my reading of it. The novel has got top billing from you and some of the other commentators and I guess it’s time for me to pick up my first Macdonald book and find out firsthand.

    • Those are two very different books you’ve got there – The Moving Target was Archer’s fast-moving debut (and was filmed as Harper with Paul Newman) and is pore like a Raymond Chandler book; The Underground Man was almost Macdonald’s last and is considered by many to be his masterpiece and is very much an autumnal work by a writer at the peak of his craft, most definitely a long and tortuously plotted story but it is beautifully done, very evocative, tightly controlled.

  10. Anne H says:

    In 1971 the novelist Eudora Welty famously wrote a long review of The Underground Man for the New York Times, and brought Ross Macdonald to mainstream attention. This is included in a collection she published of her essays and reviews, called The Eye of the Story and dedicated to a certain Kenneth Millar.
    P.S. Margaret Millar is great too. How like an Angel.

    • Thanks Anne H and thanks for all the info about Welty, who was certainly a great friend of theirs. How Like an Angel is my favourite of the Margaret Millar novels but only incidentally because it is also the one that seems to most closely resemble the Archer series – she was an exceptional mystery writer by any reckoning.

  11. Todd Mason says:

    I actually began with THE BLUE HAMMER and liked that one a lot…you can imagine how much I liked the ones I’ve read subsequently. The short story collections might actually be my favorites…

    • Hammer is a great book and a terrific swansong with its links to The Moving Target. Interesting about the short stories todd – I really, clearly, need to dig them out as it’s been a long time (I think he only wrote about 20 short stories in total?)

  12. Craig Clarke says:

    Zebra-Striped was my first experience with Macdonald and, as is often the case, is still my favorite due to the sense of “discovery” I experienced. Reading your review reminds me I still have more Ross to read, and I’m gratified to be mentioned in it. Thanks for both. :-)

    • Thanks very much Craig – and I know what you mean about the imprinting effect of one’s first experience of an author. I can still remember being knocked sideways when I read Chandler’s The Big Sleep and have an enormous affection for it though many of his later books are clearly better crafted. Although I really do think it is his most successful book, I think The Chill was the first of his ‘later’ books that I read, so maybe that has to be acknowledged as a factor …

  13. Yvette says:

    I loved this book when I first discovered it just a few years ago, Sergio. Thanks for reminding me that maybe I ought to be re-reading some Lew Archers one of these days. I much prefer Lew to Sam Spade or even – dare I say it? – Philip Marlowe though of course, all three might be cut from different parts of the same cloth. I read THE GALTON CASE first and that was all it took for me to fall under Macdonald’s spell. Archer is such a good guy.

    • Thanks Yvette – I’m pretty much with you on this. Archer is a much more modern fellow than either Spade or Marlowe. I love them equally, but differently, because I wouldn’t want to live without Chandler’s fantastic prose or Hammett’s rock solid, steely interior. The Chill was the one that ‘did it’ for me, but Galton Case is of course the best place to start.

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