The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"It was a colored sketch of a young woman. Her pale blond braids were coroneted on her head. Her eyes had the dull gleaming suavity of tile. Wilding had caught her beauty, but she was older in time than in the picture."
Ross Macdonald's The Ivory Grin (1952) is a bit out of the chronological order in my "Re-read Macdonald" project - I couldn't find my copy and had to use the library. Anyway, the book is almost exactly as old as I am and its age shows: not so much in the plot as in the writing, which is not so crisp and economical as the author's much later novels.
A bejeweled middle-aged woman, who identifies herself only as Una, hires Lew Archer to find her ex-maid, Lucy Champion, who supposedly had stolen some jewelry. Archer takes the case although - or maybe precisely because - there clearly is much more to the story than the client has revealed. Archer traces Lucy and - this being a Macdonald's novel - the plot gets almost ridiculously complicated: a young handsome man, Charles Singleton, the son of a rich and reclusive woman is missing. A doctor, his wife, and a receptionist are also involved. Archer encounters another PI working on the case, and we meet an ex-gangster, who seems to be insane. Several bodies are found. A mysterious blonde woman, "a Nordic Aphrodite rising from the Baltic", seems to have connections to every aspect of the case and provides a towering presence in the background. It is hardly astonishing that the plot sounds so very pulp: after all Kenneth Millar's writing roots are in pulp literature. Yet - almost surprisingly - the author manages to tie all loose ends neatly to make this interesting story somewhat convincing, not the least through the humanity of Lew Archer's character and the writer's sympathy towards all people no matter how flawed.
The plot leads us from Archer's office in West Hollywood (8411½ Sunset Blvd.), through Bella City in San Fernando Valley, opulent oceanside mansions in Arroyo Beach, to secluded mountain cabins near the Eagle Lookout on the Sky Route, high in the coastal range; save for West Hollywood and the Valley all these places are fictional but as a long-time Southern California resident I can vouch that the terrain and character of the region come through vividly and the California landscapes are alive on the pages.
The plot, though extremely convoluted, has kept my attention and the mystery of the blonde woman is quite captivating. However, the author relies too much - and not for the first time - on the lame device of overheard conversations. Yet Macdonald's major sin in this novel is his overuse of similes. "Her bosom heaved with remembered anger, like the aftershock of an earthquake." "The state blacktop unwound like a used typewriter-ribbon under my headlights." "[...] he backed away from her, flushed and cowering like a browbeaten German wife," "I left the question turning like a knife in her brain." While I might be allergic to similes - some of them are in fact clever, well, maybe not the one about a German wife - my library copy came with dubious similes conveniently underlined, so at least I am not alone in my tsk-tsking.
An engrossing story with some realistically drawn characters, yet the writing is not up to Ross Macdonald's usual high standards.
Two and three quarter stars.
View all my reviews