The Doomsters by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"Try listening to yourself sometime, alone in a transient room in a strange town. The worst is when you draw a blank, and the ash-blonde ghosts of the past carry on long twittering long-distance calls with your inner ear, and there's no way to hang up."
The Doomsters (1958), the twelfth novel in my "Re-read Ross Macdonald" project does not satisfy the "re-" criterion as I had never read it before. Alas it does not provide a particularly memorable entry in the Lew Archer series either: while a few passages - like the one above - are beautifully written, the novel also has several bad fragments of prose (one is quite remarkably awkward) and uses some suspect literary devices.
Carl Hallman, a highly agitated young man, knocks on Lew Archer's door waking him up in the middle of the night. He tells Archer that he escaped, along with a friend - whom Archer co-incidentally used to know in the past - from a state hospital where he was staying on a manic-depressive diagnosis. Carl tells Archer that his father, a powerful California senator who died half a year ago was in fact murdered. Carl blames his brother, Jerry, and his wife, Zinnie, for conspiring to prevent him from inheriting the father's wealth. Archer convinces Carl to go back to the hospital and promises to investigate, but Carl assaults him on the way there and escapes. Obviously, Archer begins the investigation on his own.
The plot involves murders and is quite complicated, luckily not as bizarrely complex as in several other Macdonald's books. Some of the major characters are Mildred, Carl's suffering yet supportive wife, a Dr. Grantland, an ambiguous character whom Carl also blames for his troubles, and Rose Parish, a dedicated nurse, warm person, and an attractive woman with whom Archer almost falls in love. We also learn that the death of the Senator's wife, a few years ago, might have been a murder.
At about 80% into the novel (page 150 of my old Bantam Books paperback edition) there is a real howler of very bad prose that starts with "Mind if I peel myself an apple?" Those awkward, stilted, grating sentences read as if taken from a current bestseller rather than a novel by a Grand Master of American Mystery Fiction. What's worse, Macdonald again relies on a cheap literary device: Archer is able to overhear private conversations.
I have found the ending very trying: when reading the last 40 or so pages my feelings evolved from extreme irritation, through resignation, to - in fact - grudging admiration. There are several endings, nested within each other, like Russian Matryoshka dolls. While endings in many Macdonald's books teeter on the edge of implausibility, here I was afraid the author finally had let the plot fall down the void of ridiculousness. Fortunately, the bogus endings turn out to be distractions only, and the ending that really ends the story is, in fact, somewhat plausible, well-written and touching. But why the need of these fake denouements? The reader can easily see they are not the real endings as a lot of text still remains when these diversions are spun.
Two and a quarter stars.
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