Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Galton CaseThe Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] money was never free. Like any other commodity, it had to be paid for."

The Galton Case (1959), yet another novel in my "Re-read Ross Macdonald" project, is the eighth book in the extraordinary Lew Archer series. I like it quite a lot more than many earlier entries and - since I am finally trying to read the novels in chronological order - let's hope that Macdonald will keep improving for me. In fact, I can't wait to re-read The Chill which was the book I loved the most some forty years ago. So far, one of the later novels, The Underground Man tops my Macdonald's rankings.

Lew Archer is hired by Mr. Sable, who serves as the personal lawyer for an elderly, ailing, and very rich Mrs. Galton. Nearing death she wants to make amends with her son Anthony, whom she had shut out of her life some 20 years earlier because of his unacceptable life style ("[...] somehow he became fascinated with the pitch that defileth. And the pitch defiled him", cool phrasing by Mrs. Galton, by the way). But since Anthony had disappeared long ago Sable wants Archer to find out what happened and - if Anthony is still alive - get him back to his mother to let her forgive him or at least determine with certainty that he had died.

The actual setup of the story is more complicated, though: Mr. Sable's houseman, Peter Culligan, is found murdered and the search for Anthony Galton becomes inextricably linked with the Culligan's thread. The story - which takes Lew Archer to San Francisco, to a small town of Luna Bay on the California coast, and later even to Detroit - is captivating and well told. I have been able to follow the plot without feeling lost, which has happened in the case of several other Macdonald's stories. Yet the author's storytelling has one fundamental weakness. "I hate coincidences" says Archer in his narration in the sentence that opens Chapter 7. And then, in Chapter 14, he tells Sable that "too many coincidences came together," Unfortunately, the entire plot is driven by major coincidences. While coincidences do indeed occur in real life and account for many strange twists of human histories, they make an inferior literary device in mystery novels.

The characters are well drawn: it is a pity, though, that Mr. Millar (Ross Macdonald's real name) does not flesh out the character of Cassie Hildreth, Mrs. Galton's distant cousin and paid companion. There seemed to be nice chemistry in the making between Archer and Ms. Hildreth. The writing is smooth but I regret that only very few quotable passages can be found in this novel. Other than the epigraph, perhaps only the following fragment that describes Archer losing consciousness during a severe beating, is worth quoting:
"Then it was a light surging away from me like the light of a ship. I swam for it, but it rose away, hung in the dark heaven still as a star. I let go of the pounding room, and swung from it up and over the black mountains."
Three stars.

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