Find a Victim by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"The sky turned lime-white all along its edges, then flared in jukebox colors. The sun appeared in my rearview mirror like a sudden bright coin ejected from a machine. The chameleon desert mocked the sky, and the joshua trees leaned crazily into the rushing dawn."
Find a Victim (1954) is the fifth novel in the Archer series (I am still in the author's early period in my "Re-read Ross Macdonald" project). The plot takes us to central California, to the fictional city of Las Cruces, which would be situated somewhere in the area between Bakersfield and Fresno, not far from the west slopes of the Sierra Nevada range. One of the last scenes happens on the Nevada border, in the desolate regions northeast of Death Valley. Find a Victim might be the only novel in the series where the geography of California plays some role.
Archer is driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento and we later learn that he is carrying a load of several hundred marijuana cigarettes (one needs to read the novel to find out how it is possible that his delivery is fully legal in those supposedly "clean" times of the early 1950s). On his way - as promised by the title - he finds a victim, a man who has been shot and left to die in a ditch. Archer arranges help and accompanies the dying man to the hospital. But the help is too late and Archer stays in Las Cruces to assist in solving the murder, partly because he feels he owes this to the man whom he almost saved and partly because he gets interested in some people met there.
Las Cruces is a provincial town where everybody knows everybody else and where most families are connected in some way, by birth, marriage, business, corruption, or crime. While the local sheriff distrusts Archer and wants him out, Archer has reasons to suspect that the sheriff himself is involved in crime activities. The sheriff's sister-in-law disappears, further murders happen, and the plot gets more complicated although not as much as in some later novels by Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name).
The best aspect of the novel is the author's ability to convey the sense of place and his wonderful prose portraying the country of Sierra Nevada's west slopes and the bleak and barren landscapes of the desert terrain near the California-Nevada border. I have been traveling a lot in those places during the last 33 years, and I easily recognize the characteristic vistas described by the author. Like Archer over 60 years ago, I also stop in Barstow for lunch and in Baker for coffee and I also love the uncharted backroads in the desert.
Yet Find a Victim is not one of the better books in the Archer series. I have little right to criticize a great writer, but I think that in this novel the plot drives the characterizations, and - perhaps except for Archer - the people in the book do not feel real. Moreover, several passages are highly implausible; particularly the very long conversation between two central characters, overheard in its entirety by Archer, reads like a cheap trick.
Two and a half stars, rounded down.
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