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.