The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald

It’s been a while since I last read anything by Ross Macdonald – an American writer who is now considered to be one of the leading proponents of hardboiled fiction. These novels typically feature a tough, unsentimental style of crime writing in which the protagonist – usually a private eye – battles against the systemic violence and corruption that exists within families, corporations and other powerful institutions. Several of Macdonald’s books feature Lew Archer – a detective with a conscience – a fundamentally decent man in pursuit of the truth, even though he’s almost certainly going to get roughed up along the way.

The Doomsters (1958) is book #7 in the Lew Archer series – a solid entry but probably not up there with the best. It does, however, contain some very interesting elements, enough to make it an essential part of the set for fans of the genre – more of this later. In addition, it also features several aspects that will be familiar to readers of the Archer novels. More specifically: twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; wayward children seemingly intent on manipulating situations for personal gain; highly damaged individuals with complex psychological issues; and finally, elements of greed, murder, blackmail and guilt.

As the novel opens, Archer is woken from his sleep by a caller at the door. The visitor is twenty-four-year-old Carl Hallman, an escapee from a mental institution who has been given Archer’s details by a mutual friend. While a pre-breakfast client is the last thing Archer needs at that particular moment, his curiosity gets the better of him and he invites the young man in.

Carl swiftly reveals that he was committed to the State Hospital shortly after the death of his wealthy father, Senator Hallman, some six months ago. Moreover, Carl’s elder brother, Jerry, doesn’t want Carl to be released – it turns out that Jerry, along with the family physician, Dr Gartland, was the driving force behind Carl’s incarceration. (While Carl’s wife, Mildred actually signed the relevant papers, the committal appears to have taken place following pressure from Jerry and Gartland.) According to Carl, it seems likely that Jerry and his wife Zinnie paid Dr Gartland to have him put away, possibly for the rest of his life, leaving Jerry free to benefit from the bulk of his father’s estate. There is even a suggestion that Jerry may have been involved in his father’s death – initially thought to have been due to heart failure, but the circumstances surrounding the incident could be considered suspicious.

Having digested all this, Archer persuades Carl to accompany him back to the hospital, leaving the detective free to do some digging. Tired and confused, Carl reluctantly agrees, only to overpower Archer en route, making off with the detective’s car in the process. With Carl on the run again, Archer finds himself embroiled in a complex web of manipulation and deceit. All too soon, Jerry is found dead – shot twice in the back with his mother’s old gun, a weapon thought to have been in Carl’s possession. Despite Carl being the chief suspect, Archer has enough sympathy for the young man to carry on investigating the situation – as far as Archer sees things, the powerful and corrupt may be trying to frame the damaged and vulnerable in this family.  

I won’t dwell on the plot for too long, save to say that for the most part it’s pretty compelling with a good level of intrigue along the way. That said, the resolution to the various crimes feels somewhat convoluted and laboured, requiring several pages of explanation in the form of a confession of sorts.

Nevertheless, what makes this such an interesting entrant in the series is the degree of self-realisation Archer experiences towards the end of the investigation. Firstly, there is a sense that our protagonist is coming to terms with the fact that not everything in this world is black and white; there are shades of grey in the fight against crime, just as there are in so many other aspects of life.

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.

It was a very comforting idea, and bracing to the ego. For years I’d been using it to justify my own activities, fighting fire with fire and violence with violence, running on fool’s errands while the people died: a slightly earthbound Tarzan in a slightly paranoid jungle. Landscape with figure of a hairless ape.

It was time I traded the picture in on one that included a few of the finer shades. (pp. 237–238)

Secondly, Archer must face up to an element of culpability or guilt, specifically in relation to the crimes that have just taken place. It transpires that Archer was approached three years earlier by someone from his past – a man Archer didn’t want to associate with as it reminded him of former transgressions, things he had hoped to leave well behind. Had Archer listened to this man at the time then maybe some of the tragedies involved the Hallmans could have been prevented. It’s an interesting twist, one that ends the novel on a contemplative note.

As ever with Macdonald, there is some nice characterisation, especially with the female members of the family. In this scene, Archer is observing Mildred, Carl’s birdlike wife.

She listened with her head bowed, biting one knuckle like a doleful child. But there was nothing childish about the look she gave me. It held a startled awareness, as if she’d had to grow up in a hurry, painfully. I had a feeling that she was the one who had suffered most in the family trouble. There was resignation in her posture, and in the undertones of her voice: (p. 38)

The sense of place is evocative too, capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of the Southern California setting. (Archer’s world-weary demeanour is also conveyed here, particularly at the end of the passage.)

The Red Barn was a many-windowed building which stood in the center of a blacktop lot on the corner. Its squat pentagonal structure was accentuated by neon tubing along the eaves and corners. Inside this brilliant red cage, a tall-hatted short-order cook kept several waitresses running between his counter and the cars in the lot. The waitresses wore red uniforms and little red caps which made them look like bellhops in skirts. The blended odors of gasoline fumes and frying grease changed in my nostrils to a foolish old hot-rod sorrow, nostalgia for other drive-ins along roads I knew in prewar places before people started dying on me. (p. 174)

So, in summary – not a perfect entrant in the Lew Archer series, but an intriguing one nonetheless. One for completists, perhaps?

The Doomsters is published by Vintage Crime / Black Lizard; personal copy.

23 thoughts on “The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald

  1. Brian Joseph

    The plot should sounds very good. Even if the book is not the best in the series, if I were invested in the series I would probably want to read it. I am something of a completist.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, that’s the thing. Oddly enough, I think I started with The Galton Case, which is actually book 8 in the series; but it was so good that it prompted me to go back the beginning to read them in order. Plus, it’s a great way of following the development of Lew Archer’s character over time.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Maybe I’m committing a cardinal sin by saying this, but I think I prefer Macdonald to Hammett. There’s something about Lew Archer — his compassion, perhaps? — that makes him very appealing. Anyway, I would definitely recommend the series if you ever fancy a change of scene from British cosy crime!

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    it sounds like there’s still a lot to enjoy here even if it’s not the strongest. Your enthusiasm has made me want to try Macdonald but I’ll bear in mind this is not the best place to start.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think I found it interesting as a prelude to The Galton Case, book 8 in the series and probably one of the very best. If you are interested in giving Macdonald a try, I would recommend The Drowning Pool (book 2) or The Way Some People Die (book 3). Either of these would give you a good feel for his style and pet themes. :)

      Reply
  3. Reese Warner

    Great review, thanks! I really love Ross Macdonald, and like you, would probably pick him over Hammett. Macdonald says in an interview that The Doomsters marked a turning point for the better in his writing and I do think it’s the beginning of a great period for him in the late 50s and early 60s. The Galton Case, The Wycherly Woman, and the Zebra-Striped Hearse are probably my favorites of his.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Glad you enjoyed my piece. That’s really interesting about The Doomsters marking a shift in Macdonald’s writing. I definitely get the sense that he’s slotting things into place, setting the groundwork for the next phase of books. I love The Galton Case. It’s where I started with RMcd some years ago, so it’s good to hear you rate it too. I think I have a copy of The Wycherly Woman in my TBR, definitely one to look forward to by the sound of things.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If you’d like to start near the beginning, I would recommend The Drowning Pool (book 2) or The Way Some People Die (book 3) – either of these would give you a great feel for Macdonald’s style and his insight into the toxicity within dysfunctional families.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    As you know I don’t always get on with the male writers of the hardboiled detective stories. Even if this isn’t Macdonald’s strongest I can tell how much you enjoy them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I do recall your preference for writers like Dorothy B. Hughes over Raymond Chandler. With that in mind, I’d say you can safely skip Ross Macdonald as he’s probably closer to Chandler than any of your favourites! :)

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    I do love a good Ross MacDonald! The last one I read wasn’t Lew Archer – just a random charity shop find. I do feel you need to space them out to avoid taken the wonderful prose style for granted.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re right about spacing them out, otherwise there’s a danger that all the misdemeanours and plotlines might begin to merge into one!

      Reply
  6. Radz Pandit

    I read this one last year and what I remember about it is the ‘confessional’ tone, as if Archer is more of a shrink rather than a private detective. I thought the book was interesting in that sense. But yes, I found the subsequent books – The Galton Case and The Wycherly Woman – to be superior.

    Like you I also began reading Macdonald’s books by picking a later book in the Lew Archer series – Black Money, which is brilliant. Since then, I have gone back to the beginning and am reading the books in order now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s definitely an element of Archer acting like an advisor or confidante at times. I recall it from some of the early books too, especially where youngsters are concerned. Thanks for the reminder about your Doomsters post – I’d forgotten about that but will head over to yours at some point to take a look.

      Technically, The Galton Case is the next book in the series for me, and I’m wondering if it might be interesting to revisit it now that I’ve read all the earlier ones. (It was actually my first Macdonald, back in the pre-blog days, so there’s no record of my thoughts on it at the time. I do recall it being very good though – impressive enough to set me off down a Lew Archer rabbit hole for 5 or 6 years!)

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

  8. buriedinprint

    Did you ever get around to reading some of Margaret Millar’s crime novels? (Macdonald’s wife) I think maybe so? Anyway, what you’ve said about the ending of this one reminded me of one of the endings in her oeuvre, a bit over complicated and belabored. But,as you’ve said, the completist streak balances out any such quibbles. And, even more so when there is an allegiance to a series and its main character!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I did find time to read a couple of Margaret Millar’s novels during the holidays: Vanish in an Instant, which I liked very much, and The Listening Walls, which if anything was even better than Vanish. Millar has a keen eye for homing in on the fault lines in relationships, the annoying little habits or behaviours that create tension between individuals. It seems to be one of her strengths.

      Reply

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