Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hard-boiled tragedy

Black Money (1966), by Ross Macdonald

The case seems to be a fairly straightforward one: A wealthy young man is afraid his ex-fianceé new boyfriend is actually a con artist—and not the French aristocrat he claims to be.

So he hires private eye Lew Archer to look into it. But, in a hard-boiled detective novel, nothing is ever straightforward. The case expands outward to soon include a couple of murders, a seven-year-old suicide that might not be a suicide, and a missing $100,000 in cash.

Archer eventually gets to the bottom of it, but not before having to slog his way past a succession of sad, broken people and ruined lives. The plot is actually modeled after the novel The Great Gatsby (which, I recently learned from Archer’s entry at the excellent web site Thrilling Detective, was Macdonald’s favorite novel)—revolving around people who have everything in a material sense, but still manage to screw their lives up anyways.

Archer sticks with it, though. He’s one of the hard-boiled genre’s great characters—similar to Philip Marlowe in his ability to merge world-weary cynicism with compassion for those in trouble. Archer, though, wears his heart on his sleeve more visibly than Marlowe did. A middle-aged loner, Archer seems to pretty much devote all his time and energy to helping his clients. It often turns out they don’t really deserve help all that much, but Archer keeps slogging along for them regardless.

Aside from strong, well-constructed plots, that’s what makes the Archer novels so appealing. Archer’s empathy is literally contagious—he makes us also care about the people he’s trying to help. No matter that they themselves are often (though not always) pretty sleazy—we end up feeling for them as well.

As a mystery novel, Black Money is perhaps paced a little too slowly as Macdonald introduces us to the various characters and provides us with background information. But once a particular character is unexpectedly killed, the plot rapidly becomes fascinating. There’s certainly no shortage of motives or suspects. The case seems to thread in various directions at once, involving gambling debts, secret love affairs, greed and despair.

It ought to be a depressing book, but it’s not. Archer serves as an effective emotional anchor, reminding us that there are still a few good guys out there. That’s often the role of the protagonist in the world of hard-boiled fiction. Lew Archer plays that part better than most.

Next month, we’ll jump back to 1934 and step away from hard-boiled tragedy to take a look at For the Defence: Dr. Throndyke, by R. Austin Freeman

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...