Find a Victim by Ross Macdonald

Longstanding readers of this blog may recall my intention to work through Ross Macdonald’s hardboiled novels – more specifically the books featuring his Los Angeles-based private detective, Lew Archer. Find a Victim is number five in the series – not the pick of the bunch by any stretch of the imagination, but an entertaining read nonetheless. (Here are the links to my reviews of the earlier books in the series, The Drowning Pool [#2], The Way Some People Die [#3] and The Ivory Grin [#4] – all can be read as standalone works.) While it may sound a little odd, this was a comfort read for me. I know what I’m going to get with a Lew Archer novel: something familiar yet satisfying with enough twists and turns to maintain my interest. And that was broadly the case here – it turned out to be just what I needed to read after the rather episodic nature of The Adventures of Sindbad.

So, back to Find a Victim. As the book opens, Archer is driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he is flagged down by a blood-stained man who has been shot and left to die in a ditch near a deserted stretch of the highway. With no sign of life for miles, Archer puts the severely wounded man in the back of his car and sets off to find help in the nearest town, a place called Las Cruces. On his arrival at a motel on the outskirts of town, Archer arranges for an ambulance to take the injured man to hospital – an action which turns out to be too late as the man dies before the medics can save him. Consequently, Archer must hang around to assist the authorities with their enquiries into the murder, a development that piques the detective’s interest especially once he starts to get the measure of the neighbourhood and its rather shady inhabitants.

La Cruces in the sort of small town where everybody is either related to or connected with everybody else. Archer encounters open hostility from the off: the motel owner is none too pleased with Archer for turning up with a dying man in his car; the local Sheriff seems defensive and mistrustful of him, especially once he realises that he’s dealing with a private eye; even the dead man’s boss, a local big-shot named Meyer, seems to have something to hide. (It turns out that the dead man, Tony Aquista, was driving a lorry containing a large consignment of bonded bourbon when he was shot. The truck in question is now missing, probably hijacked during the shooting – another crime for the authorities to follow up as soon as poss, especially given the nature of the cargo.) All is not well with the women in the town either. Kate Kerrigan, the motel owner’s wife, is clearly trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage, a point that Archer deduces from the word go. Then there is the question of Meyer’s daughter, Anne, who manages Kerrigan’s motel – she has been missing for the past week after failing to show up at work. As a consequence, Archer feels compelled to get involved in the case, whether the locals want him to or not.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Archer?” His grooved, stubborn mouth denied his willingness to do anything for anybody.

I told him I had stumbled into the case and wanted to stay in it. I didn’t tell him why. I didn’t know exactly why, though Kate Kerrigan had something to do with it. And perhaps the dark boy’s death had become a symbol of the senseless violence I had seen and heard about in the valley towns. Here was my chance to get to the bottom of it. (p. 38)

What follows is a sequence of events that leads Archer deeper and deeper into a complex web of vice, one that includes additional murders, robberies, corruption, adultery and sexual abuse – interestingly, family conflicts and double-dealings are themes that run through a number of these novels.

In Archer, Ross Macdonald has created a detective with a conscience, a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even when he knows it will lead to some dangerous encounters along the way. As in the previous novels, Archer gets beaten up and thrown around by those who are aiming to protect their own interests, and yet he keeps on coming back for more. Moreover, his conviction in getting to the heart of the matter is thorough and unrelenting. When the District Attorney tries to pin the crimes on the ‘obvious’ suspect, Archer refuses to accept the convenient option; he follows his instincts, refusing to dismiss any nagging doubts in the process. By so doing, it is clear that he will discover the true perpetrators of the crimes in question, even if the authorities seem less than willing to listen to him.

As I mentioned a little earlier, this isn’t the strongest of the early Lew Archer novels; some of the characters feel a little thin and clichéd. In particular, it lacks a distinctive female figure, someone like Galatea from The Way Some People Die or the vulnerable and damaged Maude Slocum from The Drowning Pool. Nevertheless, there are some nice touches here and there, like this description of the motel owner, Don Kerrigan.

He came back toward me, running his fingers lovingly through his hair. It was clipped in a crew cut, much too short for his age. I guessed that he was one of those middle-aging men who couldn’t face the fact that their youth was over. It gave him an unreal surface, under which a current of cruelty flickered. (p. 17)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these Lew Archer novels is Macdonald’s ability to evoke a strong sense of place. From the seedy bars and clubs of small towns like Las Cruces to the barren terrain of the Californian desert to the mountains near the border with Nevada, it’s all here.

I looked back to the south and then to the north. No cars, no houses, no anything. I had passed one clot of traffic somewhere north of Bakersfield and failed to catch another. It was one of those lulls in time when you can hear your heart ticking your life away, and nothing else. The sun had fallen behind the coastal range, and the valley was filling with twilight. A flight of blackbirds crossed the sky like visible wind, blowing and whiplashing. (p. 3)

All in all, this is probably a book for Archer completists. If on the other hand you’re looking to try one of the early novels just to get a sense of Macdonald’s style, then I would recommend either The Drowning Pool or The Way Some People Die, both of which are excellent reads. Finally, I must give a shout-out to Max at Pechorin’s Journal who persuaded me to read these novels in the first place. Here’s a link to his excellent review of #1 in the series, The Moving Target.

Find a Victim is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

31 thoughts on “Find a Victim by Ross Macdonald

  1. MarinaSofia

    It’s been so long since I read Ross Macdonald, that I can’t remember which ones I’ve read and which not. But I do have a yearning to return to him – as you say, perfect comfort reading. You mention his strong sense of place, and that is one of my favourite things about crime fiction.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s well worth revisiting. It’s like being washed up on some familiar shore, complete with all the usual signs and landmarks. I love the descriptions of California in these novels; they always feel so authentic.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I want to try some crime fiction books of this sort. My wife reads and enjoys them. Based on your commentary if I gave this series a try I probably would not start with this particular book.

    Reading series can be fun. I understand reading and enjoying a book, that might not be a recommended read as a standalone, because it is part of a sequence of books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If you do decide to give him a try, then I would suggest you start with the second in the series, The Drowning Pool. It’s quintessential Archer – plus, it will give you a good feel for Macdonald’s style. The other one that’s worth considering is The Galton Case, which actually comes much later in the sequence (it’s widely considered to be one of the best in the series). By this stage, Macdonald had moved up a gear in terms of his prose style, so it’s on a different level to some of these early novels. Funnily enough, it was the first one I read (pre-blog) as it just happened to be on display in one of my favourite bookshops. After that, I knew I had to go back to the beginning to read a few more.

      Reply
  3. Pierre

    I’ll have to read it again. With Macdonald, I forget the plot as much as I do with Chandler, who taught him something but not everything. The language is often unforgettable, the atmosphere unforgettable. And no one writes better about the long afterglow of events in people’s lives, how the past is still felt in the present.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I tend to forget the plots too – the themes stay with me, but not the intricate details of who does what to whom. That’s a great point about the long afterglow of events in people’s lives, the way the past seeps into the present. I love Archer’s compassion in this respect – he has an innate sense of humanity which comes through very strongly in these stories.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Not read any of this author, I like Dorothy B Hughes’ hardboiled style but didn’t get on at all with Raymond Chandler. So not sure where Ross MacDonald would fall between those two writers. The American hardboiled detective novel not being a genre I know very well. The premise of this one though does sound really good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d say he’s much closer to Chandler than to Dorothy B. Hughes. The first couple of novels in the Lew Archer series owe a debt to Chandler and the character of Philip Marlowe in particular. Macdonald went on to develop something of his own style, but those early novels were clearly influenced by the leading hardboiled writers of the 1930s and ’40s (Chandler and Dashiell Hammett).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Hammett’s great. That said, I am really enjoying these Lew Archer novels. He’s a character the reader can invest in (if that makes some kind of sense). I find his compassionate side rather endearing…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s not the strongest or most compelling of the early novels…

      If you have it, The Drowning Pool would be a good to start with. I think you’d enjoy that one.

      Reply
  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I had to laugh at Marina Sofia calling hardboil crime “comfort reading.” But I actually find myself reading more and more crime novels at the moment, and it IS comfort reading in a way. So this post was a good reminder to look for The Drowning Pool, which I put on my TBR when you mentioned the book previously.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! These classic hard-boiled novels have always been a safe haven for me – and because the stories are set in the 1940s or ’50s they don’t frighten me in the way as some contemporary crime novels would. Everything seems safely confined to the past here!

      Ross Macdonald is well worth trying, especially seeing as you’ve been reading more crime fiction of late. He’s up there with Chandler in my opinion…

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    Perhaps not the best by Macdonald, but it sounds like it was still an entertaining read with some sharp writing and interesting characters. There is something very reassuring about a series, the way it can develop characters more slowly and deeply than a single book often can. Back in the day when I used to read fantasy, that was one of the things I loved about it. The familiarity and the scope and the sense of almost coming back to a family when I picked the book up again. Lovely review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, that’s it exactly. The sense of returning to familiar characters, tropes and the cultural landscape of LA, they’re all part of the enjoyment of this series for me. It’s like revisiting an old friend you haven’t seen for a while – there’s something very comforting about that.

      Reply
  7. BookerTalk

    I was going to ask how this would compare to Chandler but then I noticed Ali had a similar question. This could be a good one for my husband who is a Chandler fan.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If he likes Chandler, there’s every chance he’ll enjoy this series. I would suggest he tries either The Drowning Pool or The Galton Case, just to get a feel for Macdonald’s style.

      Reply
      1. Pierre

        Macdonald, maybe because he was writing beyond the hardboiled era, in an era when the USA had become a therapist’s paradise, is stronger not just on how broken the characters in his stories are, but how they came to be that way. Chandler skips more lightly over people’s troubles and their causes, unless they’re criminal. They’re both poetic and beautiful stylists and Chandler has more humour, but Macdonald really gets the currents of feeling in his characters lives and the hold that the past can have over the present.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, Macdonald’s very good when it comes to portraying or hinting at past troubles in his characters’ lives. I felt that with Maude Slocum in The Drowning Pool…

          Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    I have to say, “current of cruelty” is a lovely piece of alliteration. Also, you’re absolutely right that he’s very strong on place.

    When I first read your review I thought I might skip this one (The Ivory Grin is my next), but reading again it sounds like it’s fun but not his best and actually there’ll sooner or later be a time when that’s welcome.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! A neat description, all in all.

      I think that’s a fair assessment. Not the strongest of the bunch, but still worth reading. As you say, there are times when you want something like that – nothing too flashy or complex, but still solid and entertaining. I’m certainly not unhappy that I read it.

      Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    Do you have his wife’s mysteries on your TBR as well? Her descriptions of California are often quite striking too. (Margaret Millar) I’m just reading my eighth of hers now and I was just thinking something along the same lines as your “comfort reading” idea, because there are certain things I feel I can trust in, with her storytelling and her perspective on the world. BTW, I just noted a new biographical work of RM today: It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross MacDonald Archives. Sorry if you’re already aware, but it felt too kismet-y not to make mention of it when I came upon your review this afternoon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t have any Margaret Millar in my TBR right now, but that may well change in the future. She’s been recommended to me before, particularly in connection with these Lew Archer novels, so I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I pick her up.

      Many thanks for mentioning the Macdonald biography. I wasn’t aware of that…

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  11. Lorraine McGuinness

    I love it when I come across a Ross MacDonald book review. It’s a rare occurrence. He’s one of my favourite authors and it’s definitely time for a re-read. I might read them in order for a change just to see the progression in his writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds like a good plan! A little like you, I’m always excited when I come across a fellow Ross Macdonald fan; it’s like meeting a kindred spirit in some respects.

      Reply

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