The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald

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.

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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.

40 thoughts on “The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui. My hardboiled tends to start and stop with Dashiel Hammett so I obviously need to explore further!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Hammett’s great. I know you’re on a bit of a roll with the British Library Crime Classics at the mo, but if you ever fancy something a little more hard-edged, then Ross Macdonald is well worth a look. And there’s always Raymond Chandler…

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    I like the way that hardboiled crime fiction is what gets you out of a reading slump! And people are sniffy about my predilection for crime fiction; but maybe that’s the reason why I don’t usually have reading slumps. I have to read more Ross Macdonald, I know…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it works every time, especially the vintage stuff! I just know I’ve got a great book ahead of me. There’s also that element of escapism as I imagine myself as some kind of femme fatale from the 1940s/’50s…

      I don’t know why some people are a bit sniffy about crime fiction, there’s some terrific writing to be found there. Ross Macdonald’s great, well worth investigating further.

      Reply
  3. Caroline

    Sounds excellent. If he got you out of a slump, he must be very good. I’ve got one of his novels here. Blue City. It looks like it’s a standalone.
    I like what you write about his characterizations.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s very good on characterisation, they’re memorable and he adds little details that make them feel authentic in some way. You’re right, Blue City is a standalone novel outside of the Lew Archer series. I think it was originally published under Macdonald’s own name, Kenneth Millar (RM was a pen name). Hope you enjoy it. I’ve seen the Black Lizard / Vintage Crime edition and it’s another fantastic cover.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Indeed. I’ve yet to read anything by Margaret Millar, although Beast in View was mentioned in the recommendations when I reviewed the previous Ross Macdonald novel, The Drowning Pool.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great to hear. I think you’ll enjoy him, Guy. He’s interested in his characters’ motivations, the whys as well as the hows. Chandler is a great prose stylist, but there’s something very endearing about Lew Archer…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Indeed. These novels aren’t as psychologically complex as some of the noir stories you read, but there’s enough here to maintain interest in the characters’ motives. I’ll be curious to hear how you get on with Macdonald whenever you get a chance to give him a go.

          Reply
  4. Max Cairnduff

    Thanks for the pingback.

    I thought this was a real step forward for Macdonald, it’s seriously good for the reasons you bring out. I’m really glad you liked it as much as I did.

    One thing struck me, this:

    “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.”

    is the essence of the difference between hardboiled and noir. Both are predicated on an existentialist universe without any inherent meaning or morality. In noir the protagonists act accordingly. In hardboiled the protagonist creates their own meaning based on some personal code of honour or empathy.

    Put another way, noir posits a world with no place for heroes, and consequently has no heroes. Hardboiled posits a world with no place for heroes, and protagonists who know that but choose to be heroes anyway. Both are existentialist fiction, but fundamentally different responses to the dilemma of living with an existentialist philosophy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Max. Yep, there’s a definite sense of progression in his work, and I’m already anticipating the next in the series, The Ivory Grin. Luckily there’s a copy on the shelf here as I’m back to square one with my second round of TBR20 after a couple of false starts.

      That’s a great observation on the inherent difference between the world of hardboiled fiction vs. noir. I hadn’t thought them in that way before, but you’re absolutely right. That sense of empathy and compassion is one of the key hooks for me. I know we’ve talked about this before, but Macdonald is a compassionate writer. It’s one of the things I love about his novels…that’s why I tend to home in on it when pulling quotes.

      I’ll be interested to see how you find the noir novels in your TBR20. Mildred Pierce is on my list, for sure. I’ve yet to read anything by Jim Thompson, but there’s a copy of The Grifters knocking about somewhere. The Killer Inside Me sounds pure noir from start to finish.

      Reply
  5. realthog

    Glad to hear you’re getting so much out of the Ross Macdonalds, Jacqui. I really must revisit him sometime in the near future. I think I’ve read about half of them, but it’s been a while.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh yes, do revisit him – there’s so much to enjoy! I don’t know if you’ve read this one, but Galley is a wonderful creation, as is Dowser. I’m going to continue reading them in order now so it’ll be The Ivory Grin next.

      Reply
  6. litlove

    The Galton Case is probably my favourite of his, although I also very much enjoyed The Wycherly Woman. He tends to write the same story over and over with variations, but the writing is always so good and sharp that he’s pretty irresistible. And it’s a good story! I have this one to read but have not yet read it, so hurray. Thank you for the encouraging and insightful review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! I’m glad to hear you’ve got this one on your shelves, hope you enjoy. I’ve hopped about a bit with Macdonald as I started with The Galton Case (which was terrific). But then I realised it was a mid-period Lew Archer novel, so I flipped back to the earlier books in the series. I’m trying to read them in order now, so I’ve got The Wycherly Woman (and a reread of The Galton Case) to look forward to. I agree, they tend to tell a familiar story, often involving a wayward daughter, but I never tire of them!

      Reply
  7. Scott W

    I’ve had this sitting on the shelf for at least 15 years as part of the omnibus collection Archer in Hollywood, given to me as a gift. It’s high time I get to it. You seem to be on quite a Hollywood novel kick these days!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you must get to it, Scott! I’ve fallen for Lew Archer in a big way – there’s something terribly endearing about him. And they’re great stories, a good change of pace between other stuff.

      I have been on a bit of a Californian kick in recent months, what with Joan Didion’s fiction, the Darcy O’Brien, Chandler’s The Long Good-bye and now Ross Macdonald. I keep meaning to ask if you’ve ever read any Dorothy Baker. Cassandra at the Wedding was one of my absolute favourites from last year, another novel featuring a Californian setting and images of the Golden Gate Bridge…

      Reply
      1. Scott W

        I do rather owe it to the friend who gave me the book to read it. I’ll slip it in somewhere this summer.

        Dorothy Baker is coming up very soon, thanks to Guy.

        While you’re on your California kick, I have a few recommendations – for whatever they’re worth:

        Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate (see Emma’s review)
        Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
        Carolyn See’s Golden Days (a novel about the positive side of nuclear holocaust – who but a Californian could write such a thing?)
        Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan novels

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Excellent news. Let me know how you get on with Lew Archer.

          Glad to hear you have Dorothy Baker is your sights too. I reviewed her jazz novel, Yong Man with a Horn, a few weeks back and it’s a candidate for my end-of-year highlights. (It starts out in LA but moves to the speakeasies of Harlem in the final section.) It’s a great story, full of dark, sultry nights…I loved it.

          Thanks for the recommendations, Scott…I remember Emma’s review of Seth’s The Golden Gate! I must take a look at it the next time I’m in the library just to get a feel for how it reads. I’ve struggled with poetry in the past, and that’s the only thing holding me back…it’s probably a psychological thing. I’ll take a closer look.

          Carolyn See’s Golden Days sounds fascinating, another one to seek out. I whipped through a few of the Charlie Chan mysteries many years ago, great fun.

          Reply
  8. FictionFan

    Suddenly I seem to have been hearing Ross MacDonald’s name a lot recently – I think the gods of the TBR must be trying to tell me something. Do they work as standalones or is it important to read them in order?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good sign! You can read them as standalone novels, so they’re a little like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Each one focuses on a particular story, but you get to know the PI a little better each time. If you’re thinking of trying one to get a feel for Macdonald’s style, then The Galton Case is excellent. (I read it by chance and it’s considered to be one of the best in the series.) But if you’d prefer to start near the beginning, either this one or The Drowning Pool would make a great starting point.

      Reply
      1. FictionFan

        That’s great – thanks! I think I’ll add The Galton Case to the TBR – I’m never too fussed about reading in order unless there’s a really strong story arc.

        Reply
  9. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    In my opinion for a book like this to really work the characters need to be strong. The atmosphere and twists also make this sound very good.

    I have noted that you mention that Macdonald is one of the best, I want to read some books in this genre and I might give him a try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. All the elements are present and correct here. Characterisation is one of Macdonald’s strengths – you really do find yourself caring about them.

      Back in Macdonald’s heyday in the early ’50s he was up there with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But then he seemed to drop off the radar in the latter part of the last century. I’m not sure why, but I guess these things happen from time to time, certain writers just fall out of fashion. Penguin reissued some of the Lew Archer novels a few years ago, so this may have lead to a revival of interest in his work. I know of a couple of other people who are in the process of reading their way through the series with no disappointments to date. He’s definitely worth a try.

      Reply
  10. poppypeacockpens

    Not a series I’m familiar with but your review certainly tempts me – and good to know they are standalone – noticed the collection of MacDonald’s short stories of Lee Archer is due to be published in July…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love these hardboiled novels, Poppy. But then again in my other life I would be some kind of femme fatale from the 1940s/’50s, drinking gimlets in a bar in California. Thanks for the tip-off about the forthcoming publication of the Lew Archer short stories – I wasn’t aware of that!

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    This has reminded me I must read another Ross McDonald. Perhaps I should follow your example and read them in order (as with Maigret).
    I’ve just finished The Black-eyed Blonde, John Banville’s Marlowe novel – have you read it? He carries it off quite well, though it’s difficult to avoid the feeling of pastiche in any modern version.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh yes, do read another Macdonald or two! Which one(s) have you read so far? I’m going to try to read one every 4-6 months for my hardboiled fix…The Ivory Grin is next in line.

      I haven’t read Banville’s Marlowe novel although it seems to have been well received. It sounds as though he’s recreated the style pretty effectively. Chandler’s originals were favourites in my teenage years, and I’ve been revisiting a few of them recently. Some great writing there.

      Reply
      1. 1streading

        I’ve read The Chill and The Galton Case – loved them both. Haven’t reviewed them as I tend to read ‘genre’ books when I’m behind in my blogging! Who knows, I may try The Ivory Grin next!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Glad to hear you loved The Chill, that’s one I can look forward to. I started (by accident) with The Galton Case and loved it too. Yes, do try The Ivory Grin next – the premise sounds great.

          I can understand why you might not have the time or inclination to review them. And it might become increasingly difficult to find new things to say about these novels with each review in the series. There are only some many times one can talk about Macdonald’s compassionate writing style and excellent evocation of the Californian landscape!

          Reply
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