Friday, November 9, 2012

Ross Macdonald, Find a Victim (1954)

California writer Susan Straight recommended this novel recently when discussing writers of the West who deserve being re-read. Crime fiction is a little outside my usual interest here at Buddies in the Saddle, but Straight is a personal favorite (Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, Between Heaven and Here), so I looked for a copy.

It’s tempting to read this Lew Archer mystery as a western. It has many of the western genre’s elements, though it is set in the mid-twentieth-century. Archer is far from LA, out in the Central Valley headed for Sacramento when he stops for a hitchhiker who is dying of a fatal gunshot wound.

There’s a dusty, hot town in the middle of nowhere, a Stetson-wearing county sheriff, some “rustling” (though of a truckload of booze, not cattle), more gunplay and fistfights, a saloon, assorted Mexicans and Chinese, a shootout, a chase, and a day-trip into the Sierras.

Macdonald’s storytelling style is as spare as the genre western. As the novel’s central character, Archer has the unsentimental attitude of a cowboy hero who has had more than enough of outlaws and being shot at by them. Like the cowboy, Archer is a drifter across a kind of wilderness, where there is no attachment to keep him from moving on when he chooses.

Hitchhiker, Bakersfield, 1940
Where the analogy begins to break down is the sheer complexity of Macdonald’s plot. The story begins with the simple question of who shot the hitchhiker. But as Archer’s curiosity gets him piecing together bits of back-story, there unfolds little by little a miasma of small-town chicanery. The question of who killed the hitchhiker turns into one of what the hell is going on here?

Another difference from the black-and-white world of the western is the many shades of moral turpitude among the men and women Archer meets. Though most remain legally innocent of wrongdoing, all share a degree of culpability, for all have made choices that have led to murderous consequences.

Though I don’t remember reading Macdonald before, I do know Hemingway, who had many imitators among western and crime fiction writers. Here is the novel’s opening paragraph:

He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me. He rose on his knees in the ditch. His eyes were black holes in his yellow face, his mouth a bright smear of red like a clown’s painted grin. The arm he raised over-balanced him. He fell forward on his face again.

I also immediately found familiar Archer’s frequent morose observations of life’s vicissitudes.

The hospital was visible in the distance, a long white box of a building pierced with lights. Nearer the highway, the lighted screen of an outdoor theater, on which two men were beating each other to the rhythm of passionate music, rose against the night like a giant dream of violence.

San Luis Obispo County, California
Maybe unfairly, the grim tone reminded me of parodies of hard-boiled fiction, dating back to The Firesign Theater’s Nick Danger. A similar deadpan, death’s-head humor lives on today in the wry, tough talk of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens.

Find a Victim surely falls under the heading of “classic” crime fiction. It is enjoyable on lots of levels, from the erotic to the existential. The frequent acknowledgement of women’s breasts would be the recurrent nod to Eros. And Archer himself comments on the perennial companionship of sex and death.

Ross Macdonald
What’s existential is the moral groundlessness of the world Macdonald writes of. Archer and the people he meets are worn down by the failure to make any meaning of the empty lives they live. Archer’s intelligence heightens his awareness of that dilemma. It is also a refuge for him. Less intelligent, damaged, and otherwise compromised people fall by the wayside.

Find a Victim is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble, and for kindle and the nook. Used editions can be found cheap at Abebooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Ross Macdonald photo from Bantam edition, 1972

Coming up: Saturday music, Carl Perkins


  1. I've only read one Ross MacDonald book. I have several more around. I didn't care that much for the first one I read but I should give another book a chance. It's been many years since that first one.

  2. Ross Macdonald for the most part is excellent. I recently reread all 18 of the Lew Archer novels and enjoyed them all. One of my favorite crime writers.

  3. I've read them all and this one sits right across the room. Tempting to read it again with California in mind. I will be there in two months!!

  4. Ron, its excellent reviews like these that goad me into reading an author I should have read a long time ago, especially since I have a few Ross Macdonald paperbacks in my cabinet though I’m not sure it includes FIND A VICTIM. It’s interesting that you found elements of western genre in this mystery. That opening paragraph must set the tone for the rest of the novel. Many thanks...

  5. Ross Macdonald is one of my top two favorite writers. He can give more description in one sentence than most writers can in a paragraph. True, his stories are similar (a lot of Oedipal suggestions in all his work), but for him it seems to work.

    Like Charles, the first time I tried to read him was tough. But the more I read, especially those in the middle to end of his career, the better he got. I now read them over and over.

    His biography is excellent as well. To see such a great artist go down with Alzheimers was heartbreaking.

  6. The comparison between the traditional western and the Chandler-style private-eye novel has been drawn many times before, of course, the latter sometimes being put forward as the natural successor to the former. In more recent decades several western writers have tried to work it the other way around, injecting something of the noir-ish, hardboiled element into the more historical setting of their stories ... plus, hopefully, a little of the plotting complexity. I've done it myself with the books about Joshua Dillard, an ex-Pinkerton operative working alone in stories like Liberty and a Law Badge, Blast to Oblivion, The Sandhills Shootings, and Faith and a Fast Gun. As a long-time fan of Ross Macdonald's work, Find a Victim is my favorite of the Lew Archer stories. My several-times-read UK paperback edition dates from the earliest years when the author was still being bylined "John Ross Macdonald." It also has cover artwork with the characters in appropriately nineteen-fifties dress!

  7. Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.