It’s been a while since I last wrote about Ross Macdonald – now acknowledged to be one of the leading proponents of the hardboiled novel alongside Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Many of Macdonald’s best books feature the world-weary Lew Archer, a private eye with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even though he knows he’s likely to get roughed-up along the way.
Book #6 in the Lew Archer series is The Barbarous Coast (1956), a compelling and intricate mystery featuring many of the elements I’ve come to know and love in Macdonald’s novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; damaged individuals with complex, psychological issues; elements of desire, murder and betrayal, all set within the privileged social circle of 1950s LA.
As the novel opens, Archer is arriving at The Channel Club, a high-end leisure club for the rich and famous, where he is to meet the establishment’s owner, Clarence Bassett. On his way into the club, Archer runs into a man who appears to be creating a disturbance, arguing with the security guard in an attempt to confront Bassett. The agitator in question is George Wall, a sportswriter from a Toronto newspaper – a fact Archer discovers during his subsequent meeting with Bassett. In short, Bassett wants Archer to get Wall off his back, proposing to pay the detective to nip the harassment in the bud. Usually, this would be a matter for the police, but Bassett is reluctant to involve them in any way, fearing the potential for a scandal which could damage the club.
Wall, for his part, believes Bassett is hiding his wife – a twenty-one-year girl named Hester Campbell, who appears to be caught up in some serious trouble. Wall hasn’t seen Hester since she left him in Toronto a few months ago, but a recent phone call from her suggests she is in danger. The connection to Clarence Bassett is longstanding one, Hester Campbell having known Bassett for many years, ever since she began diving at the club as a young girl. While Bassett knows of Hester’s return from Toronto to California, he claims not to have seen the girl for around three months – in all probability Hester is running around with some man she met through the club following her split from George Wall.
In the end, Archer agrees to try and find Hester, albeit somewhat reluctantly – like the seasoned detective that he is, our detective knows when something isn’t right, and that’s almost certainly the case here. While Bassett offers to pay for Archer’s services, just to get the nuisance off his back, Wall insists on paying the fees himself – a move that leaves Archer playing babysitter to his client as they set off in search of the missing girl.
“It’s right down your alley, isn’t it?” Bassett said smoothly. “What’s your objection?”
I had none, except that there was trouble in the air and it was the end of a rough year and I was a little tired. I looked at George Wall’s pink, rebellious head. He was a natural-born troublemaker, dangerous to himself and probably to other people. Perhaps if I tagged along with him, I could head off the trouble he was looking for. I was a dreamer. (p. 24)
As more information about Hester and her whereabouts comes to light, it transpires that the girl has links to a Hollywood studio – a dubious operation run by a group of powerful bigwigs. Perhaps more significantly, Hester appears to have come into a large sum of money in the last month or so, enough to buy back the upmarket property that used to belong to her family. According to the girl’s mother, Hester claims that the money came from her late husband’s estate, but this is clearly a lie – George Wall is neither wealthy nor dead. So, given his experience of these situations, Archer suspects the money may be the proceeds of some form of blackmail. Nevertheless, two key questions remain: who is Hester bribing, and what kind of hold does she have over them?
The unravelling of the web of deceit surrounding Hester brings Archer into contact with a variety of nefarious individuals, from the washed-up-boxer-turned-actor, Lance Leonard (aka Miguel Torres), to the womanising head of the film studios, Simon Graff, to the corrupt mobster, Carl Stern. What starts as just another missing person case soon morphs into something much darker, taking in multiple murders, blackmail, cover-ups and the use of a ‘cat’s paw’ to accomplish at least one dirty deed.
In his quest to uncover the truth, Archer finds himself in the midst of Hollywood, a world he finds shallow and meaningless, populated by individuals caught up in a superficial dream.
There were actresses with that numb and varnished look, and would-be actresses with that waiting look; junior-executive types hacking diligently at each other with their profiles; their wives watching each other through smiles; (p. 140)
It’s a wealthy, privileged sphere of society, indelibly tainted by the lure of corruption.
As ever, Macdonald’s descriptions of the Californian environment are lucid and evocative, effectively portraying the shadowy ‘feel’ of the place. For this novel, we’re in Malibu and Beverley Hills, locations where some of the houses have delusions of grandeur.
Manor Crescent Drive was one of those quiet palm-lined avenues which had been laid out just before the twenties went into their final convulsions. The houses weren’t huge and fantastic like some of the rococo palaces in the surrounding hills, but they had pretensions. Some were baronial pseudo-Tudor with faked half-timbered façades. Others were imitation Mizener Spanish, thick-walled and narrow-windowed like stucco fortresses built to resist imaginary Moors. The street was good. but a little disappointed-looking, as though maybe the Moors had already been and gone. (p.78)
As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Archer is at once both wired and weary, despairing of the darkness in the underbelly of LA.
Time was running through me, harsh on my nerve-ends, hot in my arteries, impalpable as breath in my mouth. I had the sleepless feeling you sometimes get in the final hours of a bad case, that you can see around corners, if you want to, and down into the darkness in human beings. (p. 226)
Overall, The Barbarous Coast is another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the Lew Archer series. While the plot feels a little convoluted and tricky to follow at times, everything slots into place relatively smoothly in the final chapters, with an additional, unforeseen twist right at the end.
Once again, Macdonald demonstrates his skill in moving the narrative forward through dialogue underscored with the ring of truth and authenticity. While Lew Archer is the most well-developed character here, the other players are nicely sketched – particularly the secondary characters who frequently add some interesting dashes of colour. Of particular note are Hester’s former landlady, Mrs Lamb, a straight-talking woman with ‘an air of calm eccentricity’; and the girl’s mother, Mrs Campbell, who naively believes Hester’s lies about her fortuitous inheritance.
There is some beautiful writing in this novel, from Macdonald’s nicely judged metaphors and observations to his poetic descriptions of the landscape. In this scene, Archer is driving into the Canyon, on his way to Lance Leonard’s house in the darkness of the night.
I left the house the way I had entered, and drove up into the Canyon. A few sparse stars peered between the streamers of cloud drifting along the ridge. Houselights on the slopes islanded the darkness through which the road ran white under my headlight beam. Rounding a high curve, I could see the glow of the beach cities far below to my left, phosphorescence washed up on the shore. (p. 108)
You can find my reviews of other novels in the Lew Archer series listed below. Each one can be read as a standalone – but to follow Macdonald’s development as a writer, it would be worth starting with an early entrant, probably The Drowning Pool.
The Barbarous Coast is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.