The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald

The Ivory Grin (1952) is the fourth book in Ross Macdonald’s series featuring the Los Angeles-based private eye, Lew Archer. I’ve been trying to read them in order, so here are links to my reviews of the second and third novels in the series, The Drowning Pool and The Way Some People Die, both of which I would wholeheartedly recommend – they can be read as standalone works.


Back to The Ivory Grin. As the story begins, Archer receives a visit in his office from a rather strange, mannish-looking woman named Una. Here’s how the novel opens – I was hooked from the get-go:

I found her waiting at the door of my office. She was a stocky woman of less than medium height, wearing a blue slack suit over a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue mink stole that failed to soften her outlines. Her face was squarish and deeply tanned, its boyish quality confirmed by dark hair cut short at the nape. She wasn’t the type you’d expect to be up and about at eight thirty in the morning, unless she’d been up all night.

As I unlocked the door she stood back and looked up at me with the air of an early bird surveying an outsize worm. (pg. 3)

Una claims she is looking for a former employee – a young ‘coloured’ maid named Lucy – who has disappeared along with a pair of ruby earrings and a gold necklace. At first, Archer proposes that this is a matter for the police; Una, however, doesn’t want them involved, keen as she is to talk to the girl to see what she’s up to. Archer is none too keen on Una and remains rather sceptical about her stated motivations for wanting to find Lucy. That said, curiosity gets the better of him and he agrees to do a little surveillance, at least in the short term. According to Una, Lucy has been seen at a restaurant in Bella City, so Archer heads off to find the girl to monitor her movements for a while.

Archer finds Lucy and follows her for most of the afternoon, the trail taking him from the bungalow where she’s been renting a room to a seedy motel in the same area. When she hears of Lucy’s whereabouts, Una decides to pay the girl a visit at the motel, giving Archer instructions to resume his surveillance once she has left. As Archer continues to follow Lucy, the journey takes him to the office of a certain Dr Benning, whom the girl consults before heading to the railway station. Along the way, Archer realises that there is someone else on Lucy’s trail, another private eye named Max Heiss, who tries, rather unsuccessfully, to persuade our detective to collaborate on the case. In the meantime, Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, pulls up to the station in his car, picks up the girl and drives off, losing Archer in the process. When he returns to the Mountview Motel later that afternoon, Archer discovers that Lucy has been murdered, her throat cut from ear to ear.

At this point, we meet one of my favourite characters in the novel, the world-weary police chief, Lieutenant Brake. Here he is, talking to Archer at the scene of Lucy’s murder, a passage that illustrates Macdonald’s skill with dialogue.

“Who hired you?

“I don’t have to answer that.”

“You weren’t hired to kill her, by any chance?”

“You’ll have to do better than that, if you want any co-operation from me.”

“Who said I wanted any co-operation from you? Who hired you?”

“You get tough very quickly, lieutenant. I could have blown when I found her, instead of sticking around to give you the benefit of my experience.”

“Can the spiel.” He didn’t needle easily. “Who hired you? And for God’s sake don’t give me the one about you got your client’s interests to protect. I got a whole city to protect.”

We faced each other across the drying moat of blood. He was a rough small-city cop, neither suave nor persuasive, with an ego encysted in scar-tissue. I was tempted to needle him again, to demonstrate to these country cousins how a boy from the big city could be hard in a polished way. But my heart wasn’t in the work. I felt less loyalty to my client than to the dead girl on the floor, and I compromised. (pg. 53)

Alongside this first strand, a second one starts to open. When Archer finds Lucy’s body in the motel room, he also discovers a newspaper clipping in her purse – namely, an article advertising a $5,000 reward for information on the whereabouts of a young socialite called Charles Singleton. Some two weeks earlier, around the same time as Lucy’s disappearance from Una’s employ, Singleton had also vanished (he was last seen in the public rooms of a local hotel). As a rather reluctant heir to the family business, Singleton had been trying to break away from his wealthy mother and her money for years – ideally, he wanted to create a life of his own. So, following the discovery of the clipping, Archer heads off to Arroyo Beach to visit Mrs Singleton in her home. Once there, he is hired by the lady’s young companion, Sylvia Treen, with the aim of finding Charles, hopefully still alive.

The two cases are of course connected, but I’m reluctant to reveal how – let’s just say that they intersect in unexpected and complex ways. Lieutenant Brake is convinced that Lucy’s boyfriend, Alex, is responsible for his girlfriend’s death, especially when the murder weapon turns out to be the boy’s knife. Archer, however, isn’t buying this, especially once the details surrounding the Singleton case start to emerge.

I had been trying to decide all morning whether to give Brake everything I knew. I decided not to. The frayed ends of several lives, Singleton’s and his blonde’s, Lucy’s, and Una’s, were braided into the case. The pattern I was picking out strand by strand was too complicated to be explained in the language of physical evidence. Brake’s understanding was an evidence box holding the kinds of facts that could be hammered through the skulls of a back-country jury. It wasn’t a back-country case. (pg. 148)

The Ivory Grin is a story of fear, desire and the lure of money (there are links to mobsters and collection rackets rumbling away in the background). It’s another very fine entrant in Lew Archer series. The plot is tight yet complex enough to keep the reader guessing; the lead characters are intriguing and just a little different to the usual types one tends to find in this genre. One of the highlights is the interplay between Archer and Lieutenant Brake, the police chief who’s been dealing with guys and girls from the wrong side of the tracks for nigh on thirty years. Brake is weary and frustrated, tired of ‘trying to fit human truth into the square-cut legal patterns handed down for his use by legislators and judges.’

Another high point is Lew Archer himself, a detective I’m growing to love more and more with every novel in the series. On the whole, Archer treats people with respect. He is a good judge of character, keen to observe and scrutinise wherever possible, but compassionate too. Archer’s treatment of the black characters is very sympathetic; he is on the side of decent people, irrespective of their colour, race and gender. There are some very nice touches with some of the minor characters too, most notably an elderly next-door neighbour who proves useful to Archer in his surveillance of Lucy, and a homely milliner who lives with her cat. Macdonald captures their personalities with just the right amount of colour.

The novel is very strong on the sense of place and period. Small-town America in the 1950s is portrayed in vivid detail, a community divided into ‘lighter and darker hemispheres’ by the highway that runs through it. Archer finds himself in the bottom half, a run-down place packed with laundries, warehouses, and dilapidated houses.

Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage. (pg 12)

Alongside this picture of the small-scale environment, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian landscape are as evocative as ever. I’ll finish with a final quote on the scenery surrounding Bella City – Archer is driving there in search of Lucy.

From the top of the grade I could see the mountains on the other side of the valley, leaning like granite slabs against the blue tile sky. Below me the road meandered among brown September hills spattered with the ink-blot shadows of oaks. Between these hills and the further mountains the valley floor was covered with orchards like vivid green chenille, brown corduroy ploughed fields, the thrifty patchwork of truck gardens. Bella City stood among them, a sprawling dusty town miniatured and tidied by clear space. I drove down into it. (pg 11)

The Ivory Grin is published by Vintage Books – Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

40 thoughts on “The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. There is indeed. I often find myself drawn to these vintage crime stories, particularly if they’re set in California.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I do like this series. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read anything by Raymond Chandler, but Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels are in a similar style.

  1. Brian Joseph

    I like that opening passage. It seems to be an intentional variation on more cliched opening that one finds common in books like this.

    The fact that all the characters are a little different also sounds good.

    Great commentary on this book Jacqui.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Glad you liked that first quote.Yes, Una’s quite a character. She makes a change from the usual damsel in distress or femme fatale one often finds in the opening set-up of these stories. The last two lines are very telling – they’re just perfect.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. Oh, you should get back to him! I’m probably committing some kind of cardinal sin by saying this, but I think I’m enjoying these Lew Archer novels even more than the Philip Marlowe stories I’ve been revisiting. Maybe it’s because I’m coming to these fresh whereas the Chandlers are all re-reads.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll enjoy this series, Guy. Yes, the covers on these Vintage/Black Lizard are terrific. In fact, the books themselves are beautifully produced – they’re a joy to hold and read.

  2. Scott W

    Just the whiff of what you provide here makes me eager to quit what I’m doing and go read an Archer novel instead. MacDonald’s enjoyable on so many levels, not least of which is his California regionalism. I’m curious to know on what town he has modeled Bella City. I’m curious, have you read any of the novels by his spouse, Margaret Millar? I’m just wondering what they’re like in comparison.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m glad you’ve been enjoying Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels as well, Scott. Yes, the descriptions of the Californian towns and surrounding landscape are wonderful. I’d assumed Bella City was a real place in California, but maybe that’s not the case – that said, I think there are instances across the series when Macdonald uses the fictional name of Santa Theresa as a stand-in for Santa Barbara. I’ll have to take another look at the relevant sections to see if there are any other clues about Bella City.

      Ah, Margaret Miller – no, I haven’t read any of her books yet, but she cropped up in the conversation when I reviewed at least one of the other two Macdonald novels in the series. Beast in View seems to be a favourite, so it could be a good one to try.

  3. Grab the Lapels

    I know recently there were news stories on NPR about the massive damage freeways have done by cutting cities in half, leaving POC on one side and well-to-do whites on the other, and how that divide negatively affects cities and residents.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can imagine that being the case. Macdonald’s very good at highlighting these contrasts between the different socio-economic groups. It’s very marked in this novel in particular. He’s also excellent when it comes to lifting the lid on the greed, corruption and twisted behaviour which exists in some of the richer families in the region.

      I like his depiction and treatment of the people of colour here. He’s quite sympathetic and compassionate towards them, more so than some of his forerunners and contemporaries, I suspect.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Cleo. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you enjoy vintage hard-boiled novels, then you’ll almost certainly like this series.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Terrific – glad you enjoyed the quotes, Seamus. I do hope you’ll give him a try at some point. The first one or two in the series channel Chandler and Hammett, but then a more distinctive style starts to emerge, one that’s very much Macdonald’s own. I really like the sense of compassion in his work.

  4. Elena

    Wonferful review of a very well-known author! I have to admit I have seen McDonald quoted several times in my crime fiction reference books for my PhD, yet I haven’t read his works. But, this one sounds fascinting, so maybe it’ll be a good first contact with the series. Or, do you think I’d better give the series a try from installment #1?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Elena. Macdonald is definitely worth reading, especially if you think he might be useful for your PhD. As for where to start, it depends. If you’re interested in tracking his development as a writer, then it would be worth starting with an early one, possibly #2 in the series, The Drowning Pool (the first book, The Moving Target, is the weakest and could probably be skipped). Alternatively, if you’d just like to read a good one to get a feel for the style, then I’d suggest either The Ivory Grin or the third book, The Way Some People Die. Any of these would be fine, and they all work as standalone novels. I think the books get even better as the series moves forward. Just by chance, I actually started with one of the best instalments in the series — The Galton Case — just because I happened to pick it up in a bookshop one day. It falls somewhere in the middle of the pack, and it’s probably my favourite of all the Macdonalds I’ve read so far – a pre-blog read, hence the lack of a review. Hope that helps.

      1. Elena

        Good to hear the novels in the series work as stand-alones. I think I’ll give one of them a try. Thanks for the research, Jacqui xx

  5. Mark S. Bacon

    I’ve become a Macdonald fan, too. Liked this book. Of the lines you picked, I particularly remember “I admitted that I was,” and “I’d liked the woman’s voice on the telephone.” Reading RM is a lesson in creating memorable characters. I’m working my way through in chron order, but have jumped to Galton Case as it’s supposed to be one of his best. I will read them all, eventually. So many books, so little time. And then there’s writing.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad my post revived a few memories for you. Yes, Macdonald’s terrific when it comes to creating these characters, even the cameo roles are rather striking. Funny you should mention The Galton Case as that’s where I started with the series (purely by chance as it happens, so I’m trying to read them in order now). Galton’s a great book, probably my favourite so far – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Thanks for dropping by.

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  7. Max Cairnduff

    Like Marina this reminds me it’s too long since I’ve read a MacDonald, and rather neatly this is the next one chronologically so it’s the next one I plan to read.

    Lovely review, and Brake sounds like a great new character. I’ll bump this up the pile.

    Vintage/Black Lizard really have done a marvellous job with these haven’t they? Not just the great covers, they also have good paper and feel good in the hand. A really high quality imprint.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. I’m really looking forward to seeing what you think of it, especially in comparison with The Way Some People Die (which I know you liked very much). The dynamic between Archer and Brake was one of my favourite things about this one. It’s very nice done, and the dialogue really sparkles. I thought the characterisation was excellent here – not just Archer and Brake, but Una too. Plus Macdonald adds some very nice touches with the cameo roles, especially the next-door neighbour and the hat lady with her cat. (Hopefully you’ll see what I mean when you read it.)

      I’m planning to read a Lew Archer very six months or so just to keep the momentum going. Find a Victim is next in line for me, so I’ll try to get to it before the year is through. And yes, I’m with you all the way on these Vintage Crime/Black Lizard editions. They just ooze class on every level. As you say, they’re a delight to hold. Thank you for introducing me to this series – I definitely owe you one for this!

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