Last year, The Drowning Pool, the second book in Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ series of hardboiled detective novels, rescued me from a brief reading slump. Next up then is number three in the series, The Way Some People Die, which I’d picked up a couple of years ago following Max’s excellent review.
As the novel opens, Lew Archer, a private investigator working the suburbs of Southern California, is called to the Santa Monica home of worried mother, Mrs. Samuel Lawrence. Her daughter, Galatea (‘Galley’) Lawrence, a nurse at Pacific Point hospital, has been missing without a trace for a couple of months. Prior to her disappearance, Galley was nursing a guy named Speed, who had been shot in the stomach in suspicious circumstances. To add to the intrigue, Galley was last seen moving out of her apartment in Pacific Point accompanied by an unknown man of a sinister nature. Consequently, Mrs Lawrence is worried that her daughter, a girl who attracts men like bees to a honey pot, has got herself mixed up in some kind of trouble.
Archer isn’t overly concerned though; girls skip off with guys all the time. Nevertheless, he agrees to do a bit of rooting around. One look Galley’s photograph swings it. ‘She was a girl you saw once and never forgot,’ a girl with bold and passionate looks, ‘curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones.’
As he goes about his business, Archer discovers that Galley appears to have disappeared with a small-time hoodlum called Joey Tarantine. Joey and his brother Mario are connected to a bigger fish, a powerful gangster named Dowser, and it’s not long before Archer find himself face-to-face with this predator. Dowser is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, a man whose main methods of communication are money and violence (not necessarily in that order). Even though he despises Dowser and his type, Archer knows he will have to deal with him to uncover the mystery surrounding Galley’s disappearance.
I didn’t want Dowser’s money, but I had to ask him for it. The giving and receiving of money, its demand and its refusal, were Dowser’s basic form of communication with other people. That and the threat, the blow, the infliction of fear and pain. (pg. 41)
Max’s review includes a great analysis of Dowser (do read it). Macdonald has a keen eye for characterisation – it’s one of the reasons why this novel is so satisfying. Dowser is a little lacking in the height department, a stocky man with a body shaped like a cube. He is the embodiment of a mobster suffering from ‘short man syndrome,’ a power-crazy man driven by greed and insecurity. This next quote captures it nicely:
I sat down across the table from Dowser and looked him over. He took a few strutting paces on the patio tiles, his arms folded across his chest. With his swollen body wrapped in a white beach robe, he reminded me a little of a Roman emperor sawed off and hammered down. It was strange that men like Dowser could gain the power they had. No doubt they got the power because they wanted it so badly, and were willing to take any responsibility, run any risk, for the sake of seizing power and holding on. They would bribe public officials, kill off rivals, peddle women and drugs; and they were somehow tolerated because they did these things for money and success, not for the things themselves. (pg. 203)
I don’t want to say too much about the plot, but it’s deliciously twisty and turny. There are bluffs and double-crosses, murders and bloodshed, drugs and dollars. It’s a proper mesh of vice, a world populated by villains with fat rubber faces, and Galley can be found right in the middle of it.
Rather than dwell on the plot, I’d like to mention a few of the other things I enjoyed about this book. As you might expect, this being a gumshoe detective novel, the dialogue is sharp and moody. Here’s a good example. Archer is following up on a lead; he goes to see Jane Starr Hammond, an acquaintance of Keith Dalling’s (a faded actor, another man wrapped up with Galley). The scene is vintage hardboiled:
“I’m looking for a woman named Galley Lawrence. Mrs. Joseph Tarantine. Do you know her?”
A shadow crossed her face. Her hardening blue gaze reminded me that I hadn’t shaved or changed my shirt for over twenty-four hours. “I think I’ve heard the name. Are you a detective?”
I admitted that I was.
“You should shave more often; it puts people off. What has this Mrs. Tarantine been up to?”
“I’m trying to find out. What did she used to be up to?”
“I really don’t know Mrs. Tarantine. She lives in the same apartment building as a friend of mine. I’ve seen her once or twice, I think, that’s all.”
“Under what conditions?”
“Normal conditions. She dropped into my friend’s apartment for a cocktail one afternoon when I was there. I didn’t like her, if that’s what you mean. Her appeal is to the opposite sex. Frank sexuality is her forte. If I wanted to be catty I’d call it blatant.” Her forte was the cutting word. (pg. 69)
I also love the way Macdonald evokes a strong sense of place, the dimly-lit city streets and dark underbelly of the California suburbs. The trail takes Archer from Pacific Point to Palm Springs to San Francisco. The territory is dark and atmospheric.
I switched on my headlights as I wheeled out of the parking lot. The gray dusk in the air was almost tangible. Under its film the city lay distinct but dimensionless, as transient as a cloud. The stores and theaters and office buildings had lost their daytime perspectives with the sun, and were waiting for night to give them bulk and meaning. (pg. 30)
And lastly, but by no means least, there’s Lew Archer himself. Macdonald has created a wonderful character in Archer, one the reader can invest in and care for. He is world-weary but also humane and compassionate. He can see Mrs. Lawrence is down on her luck as soon as he arrives at her home.
The house didn’t look as if it had money in it, or ever would have again. I went in anyway, because I’d liked the woman’s voice on the telephone. (pg. 3)
That’s Lew Archer in a nutshell. He feels a sense of despair for some of the lost and wayward souls he encounters as he goes about his business, guys who have drifted into a life of crime because they don’t know what else to do with their lives. Boys like Ronnie, a twenty-year-old delinquent, caught up in the drugs racket:
There was really nothing to be done about Ronnie, at least that I could do. He would go on turning a dollar in one way or another until he ended up in Folsom or a mortuary or a house with a swimming pool on top of a hill. There were thousands like him in my ten-thousand-square-mile beat: boys who had lost their futures, their parents and themselves in the shallow jerry-built streets of the coastal cities; boys with hot-rod bowels, comic-book imaginations, daring that grew up too late for one war, too early for another. (pg. 135)
The Way Some People Die is a terrific hardboiled novel, probably my favourite of the three Lew Archer books I’ve read so far. It’s nicely paced, and the absorbing narrative keeps the reader guessing right up to the very end. The denouement, when it comes, is thoroughly satisfying. If, like me, you enjoy the likes of Chandler and Hammett, Ross Macdonald is worthy of your time – he’s one of the best.
The Way Some People Die is published by Vintage Crime / Black Lizard. Source: personal copy.