The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them. I was a long way from solving that one."
I have found this magnificent quote on page 87 of my old paperback edition (1975 printing) of Ross Macdonald's The Barbarous Coast (1956), the sixth novel in the famous Lew Archer series which I am currently re-reading. The quote and some cool passages notwithstanding, this is not one of the better books by Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name), and in fact it may be the weakest so far in my re-reading project.
George Wall, a young journalist from Toronto is pestering Mr. Bassett, the manager of an exclusive Malibu beach club: Wall's wife had left him and had been seen with a member of the club before she disappeared. Bassett wants to hire Lew Archer to stop the harassment, but it is eventually Mr. Wall who hires the detective to find his wife. There are apparent connections with organized crime and Archer summarizes the situation, "A girl leaves her husband, takes up with a washed-up fighter who runs with mobsters." Indeed boxers and gangsters are some of the main characters, but we also meet "important" people like the owner of a Hollywood movie studio and the usual halfwits who populate the top levels of management. Archer learns about an unsolved murder from the past and travels to Las Vegas (ah, Vegas from the 1950s! How I would love to see it!). The plot delivers more bodies and one of them is introduced in the unforgettable style originated by Raymond Chandler and perfected by Macdonald: "He wore a plaid evening jacket and midnight-blue trousers and dull-blue dancing-pumps, but he wasn't going anywhere. He lay on his back with his toes pointing at opposite corners of the ceiling."
Yet until page 55 I could not believe I was reading a Ross Macdonald novel: sloppy writing, implausible situations, bad dialogue, convenient coincidences, etc., would belong in a contemporary bestselling mystery but not in a classic of the genre. Maybe Mr. Millar was testing the readers: are they patient and dedicated enough to stay with the book despite the horrid beginning? Then suddenly, at about one third of the book, everything changes: we have realistic situations, acutely observed psychology, great characterizations and interesting dialogues, in addition to biting satire on the power structure in a movie company. I could not put the book away even for a moment at that phase. Alas, the good parts end rather quickly and the plot and even the writing gradually deteriorate to culminate in a stagy, overdone ending that includes mentions of mental illness and contains unnecessary twists of the plot.
This 60-year old novel feels a little bit dated, which is not all bad. For instance, Archer uses the telephone answering service: what a wonderful thing it must have been! Just imagine: in order to find out who called when one was not available to pick up the phone, one calls the answering service and talks to an intelligent and friendly operator who not only gives provides the needed information but also chats about this and that.
To sum up: The Barbarous Coast is quite far from a good novel but has some good parts. And the quote is unforgettable!
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