When I discovered the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald in the early 1960s, I couldn't get enough of them. I bought as many as I could find in paperback and read them as soon as I got home with them. So imagine my surprise when I learned a few years ago that current readers found them "slow" or "okay for the time when they were written." For a while there even seemed to be a danger of the books being out of print. Most of them are available now, but I'm not sure that readers are being won over. As for me, however, my devotion is unswerving, and when I heard that the Coen brothers were considering filming Black Money, I thought it might be fun to read it again. And it was.
The plot, as usual with Macdonald, is complicated, although it begins simply enough. A young man named Peter Jamiesen, is in love with Virginia Fablon, who's thrown him over for Francis Martel, International Man of Mystery. Peter wants Archer to look into Martel's background. Now Archer could do most of this job on his computer, but this was 1965, long before the days of the Internet. The Coens will have to set the movie in the right time period for it to work, I think, but I digress. As always happens in these kinds of cases, once Archer begins looking into Martel's past, he finds out all kinds of things that other people don't want him to know. In Macdonald's books the past is always a powerful influence on the present and is in fact the driving force behind all the current problems. Archer says, "Past and present were coming together. I had a moment of claustrophobia in the phone booth, as if I was caught between converging walls."
Just about everybody in the book is caught between those walls. Some of them are wealthy, some not. Most of them are desperate and trapped in one way or another. Some of them will wind up dead, and none of them will come out of it untouched, and that includes Archer.
If you're looking for explosions and gunplay, you won't find much of that here. Macdonald writes about ordinary people living out their lives of quiet desperation, and that desperation sometimes leads them to kill. Archer is a far cry from Jack Reacher. He's a dogged investigator with problems of his own, not a near-invincible hero. Sometimes he's not even very likable, but he gets the job done. So do Macdonald's books.