First things first, why is it called ‘The Zebra-Striped Hearse’? Yes, Archer does encounter the titular vehicle, but it’s hardly of crucial importance to the story, at best only tangential to the investigation.
So why name the whole book after it?
Of course the most simple and Occam’s Razor answer is that once MacDonald coined the phrase he really, really liked it. But it seems lazy to just stop there, so I’m going to push further. This is noticeably a novel about the generation gap. More than once our narrator reminds us that he’s a man in his forties; that the women he likes are in their forties. It’s quite clear that his attitudes to life are shaped by his age. But this is a book with a lot of young people, and this man in his forties can’t quite get a grip on them, they are a whole other – almost unfathomable – tribe to him. And that I think is what this zebra-striped hearse signifies. It’s an old hearse which has been bought by some beach bums who use it to drive up and down the Californian coastline, lugging their surfboards and occasionally sleeping in it. And to a man in his forties there’s a fundamental lack of respect in taking this vehicle which has a solemn importance, and using it for such a purpose, and even defacing it with zebra-stripes. It’s a sign – as if another sign were needed – that the young are a breed apart, and the older heads, including Archer, are only just managing to keep the world around them together.
Archer is hired by a stern old major to investigate the new boyfriend/fiancé he sees as distinctly unsuitable and unworthy for his darling daughter, in what is, to be frank quite a disappointing mystery.
Firstly, it relies on the huge coincidence of the body of a man Archer is looking for being discovered and dug up the same day as Archer starts investigating his disappearance. Obviously such an old hand as Ross MacDonald knew that coincidences are best avoided in mystery stories, so this feels particularly sloppy.
Elsewhere, well of course it’s the convention in mysteries that characters don’t tell the whole truth even if they’re innocent, as that’s how you extend the story – but here we have a character who obscurants and ducks questions even though it would really be in his best interests to say just tell what he knows.
So bizarrely, for such a master of the genre, we have a mystery which far from a mechanical masterpiece, is instead coughing and spluttering. From that point of view it’s a disappointment, but then this is a book which goes and contains paragraphs like this:
“I went inside the club, where the late afternoon crowd were enjoying themselves. If gamblers can be said to enjoy themselves. They wheedled cards or dice like sinners praying for heaven for one small mercy. They pulled convulsively at the handles of one-armed bandits, as if the machines were computers that would answer all their questions. Am I getting old? Have I failed? Am I immature? Does she love me? Why does he hate me? Hit me jackpot, flood me with life and liberty and happiness.”
And it is just so wonderful and sad and well observed and downbeat funny, that I know that even if MacDonald’s mystery setting skills can occasionally let him down – and here without any doubt they let him down – I’ll still keep reading and loving his work because – up there with Chandler – in MacDonald we have the crime author as astute poet.
Fancy some free short stories, my collection ‘Something Went Wrong & Other Strange Tales’ is available now!