Friday, March 25, 2016

FFB: Black Money -- Ross Macdonald

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.


9 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Probably the writer most responsible for my love of Crime stories.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

I think BLACK MONEY is the next on my "to be read" list, as I have never finished the series.

Deb said...

I've enjoyed several that I've read (I don't think BLACK MONEY is one of them), but--much like the Travis Magee books--the Lew Archer books closely follow an established template and reading too many too closely together results in a certain sameness with all the characters and plots running together. The thing I think Ross Macdonald does more effectively than almost any other writer is to use a combination of first-person narration and characters' dialog to gradually reveal the puzzle piece-by-piece and keep the story moving along.

Richard Robinson said...

Like Jeff, I haven't read all of the Archer books, though I've read the first three or four more than once. When we did a Ross Macdonald FFB and I read ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE, I remembered how much I liked those books and vowed to read more. It's time.

Joe Barone said...

One of my favorite writers. My wife (not a great mystery fan) also enjoyed reading RM.

Don Coffin said...

When I discovered these books--mid-1960s, at the library--I made what I now regard as a mistake--I pretty much read everything in about a month. And the books began to overlap and seem the same. I should probably read them again, spaced out suitably. We'll see. (Back when, I liked the movies made from the books better--Harper, The Drowning Pool, Deadly Companion, and Blue City.)

Barry Ergang said...

It's been many years since I read Black Money, but I'm pretty sure it's among the Macdonalds I've read twice.

You wrote, "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.'" It reminded me of the time I bought and started to read The Wycherly Woman. I was a big Macdonald fan, but a few chapters into it, I thought it seemed ploddingly slow, so I put it aside and went on to another book. A year or so later I started it again and couldn't put it down.

Just goes to show how one's mood can affect one's involvement or lack of same in reading matter.

Todd Mason said...

He's not flashy. In a way even Chandler is.

Mathew Paust said...

Agree with Barry that reader mood can play an important role, especially with a novel of some complexity. I've found this true of le Carré, as well. Not sure I did read Black Money back when I was reading MacDonald, but it's going on my list now. Coen bros. That should be something.