In many ways this last of Ross MacDonald’s Archer novels feels like a culmination of all that went before.
Here, MacDonald has refined his normal trick – a case which has echoes back to the past and reveals a covered up crime from decades before – and taken it to the point of tragedy. Tragic is how this story feels by the end, that we’re in the midst of some almost Shakespearean calamity. And even though the plot mechanics are a little obvious and the average mystery loving reader will guess where a lot of it is going, such is the empathy MacDonald manages to create and his understanding of the complex flaws of people, the ending still feels emotionally like a kick in the stomach.
Although not for Archer himself. There’s almost a happy ending for him, with a new girlfriend on the horizon. That’s interesting in itself as Archer is the instigator, the one who pulls everything apart. But with so much sadness going around, Archer seems to avoid his share of it. He’s a dour jester who might finally be getting his reward.
(It’s curious how the two lonely hard-boiled detectives of California, Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe, both end their final novels in an embryonic relationship. Although MacDonald makes a much better fist of it than Chandler did).
The book does hamper itself by starting with Archer being hired to find a missing painting before, in that first meeting with the client, taking it immediately upon himself to look for a missing person instead. Much to his client’s objections. Any way you try to spin it, that seems an odd way of running a business. But once you’ve got over MacDonald’s clumsiness in crow-barring his detective into this mystery, there’s a hell of a lot here to admire.
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