The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"The cab turned off U.S. 101 in the direction of the sea. The road looped round the base of a brown hill into a canyon lined with scrub oak."
Thus begins one of the most important detective series of the 20th century - Ross Macdonald's series featuring Lew Archer, the wise, decent, and compassionate private eye. The Moving Target (1949) is the first novel in the cycle, and on the same very first page we can find Macdonald's evocative prose about Southern California:
"The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the canyon's mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property; color guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so small."
Lew Archer is hired by Mrs. Sampson, the wife of a very rich oilman who has disappeared. Not that she cares about her husband, of course, but since there are indications that the disappearance might be a kidnapping, she is worried about the money she is expecting to inherit. Two of other main characters are Miranda, the Sampsons' daughter, and Alan, a young pilot and Mr. Sampson's subordinate from their military service during the war. As the plot progresses we meet many other characters - too many to keep track of their individual connections to the plot - some of whom are on the wrong side of the law, some on the right one, and many on both. The story is complicated yet linear, unlike typical Macdonald's plot of his later books where the secrets from the deep past drive the current events.
It is hard to believe that the book had been written before I was born (prehistoric times) because only the dialogues - and not too many of them at that - sound dated. The prose is not yet as stellar as in some newer books by the author, but there are several passages that are worth immortalizing as quotes. "I fell against the piano. Consciousness went out in jangling discord, swallowed by the giant shadow." I also like the "podex osculation" phrase, which should be used more often in today's politically correct, euphemistic, "let's pretend" kind of world.
On the negative side, the character of Miranda is not drawn well: she is much less convincing than, for instance, her mother and I am not able to believe that she is a real person. Many of the "bad" characters are just caricatures. The Kierkegaard quote on the penultimate page sounds quite pretentious. Yet overall, I am inclined to recommend this 67-year-old novel.
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