Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Zebra-Striped HearseThe Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The stout woman behind the counter looked as though she had spent her life waiting, but not for me."

The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) had been my first book by Ross Macdonald; I read it some time about 1970 in Polish translation - still remember the title, Pasiasty karawan. The concept of 18-year-old California surfers traveling from beach to beach in a hearse painted in a zebra pattern represented the pinnacle of cool for a college student in Poland, behind the so-called Iron Curtain, in the peak phase of his fascination with the youth rebellion of the late Sixties.

Harriet, the daughter of a retired Colonel Blackwell, has fallen in love with Blake Damis whom she met in Mexico. The Colonel, a controlling personage, does not think that the man is a suitable candidate for his son-in-law. He hires Lew Archer to investigate Damis in hope of finding some dirt on him. Archer soon discovers that the man has entered the U.S. from Mexico as Q.R. Simpson. He might also be using the identity of Bruce Campion, a young and gifted painter. Harriet disappears, most likely with Damis, while Campion and Simpson feature prominently in two separate murders, the former as a suspect and the latter as the victim. The case takes Archer to Guadalajara in Mexico, various places in the Bay Area, and Nevada. The trajectory of the plot somehow circles back almost to the same place where it started. The hearse appears several times in the story and an object connected to the surfers becomes a clue.

The best thing about the novel is the Guadalajara part of the story where the author vividly conveys the character of Mexican location. Well-written conversations between Archer and Miss Castle and then also Mrs. Wilkinson are compelling and full of psychological truth. The reader even gets a little surprise signaled by "I recognized the way she used her eyes." Alas, several later passages in the novel read flat and uninspired, the worst being Archer's interrogation of a suspect in a hospital, written in an awkward dialogue that reeks of theatricality. Somehow it almost feels the fragments were written by a different author.

Re-reading the novel after half a century has been a bit of disappointment. Not that it is a bad book; on the contrary, it may be a better than average entry in the Lew Archer series, but it is hard to understand why this young man in Poland, who somehow turned into me, was so fascinated with the book. One of the reasons must have been the exotic locale of Southern California - now my home - but why the false memory that the zebra-striped hearse was a major component of the story? It is not, other than serving as a sort of metronome that provides rhythm to the tale.

A number of neat quotes decorate the novel. Other than the blatantly cute Chandleresque quip shown in the epigraph, let me point out a clever one alluding to a common human foible:
"Her voice held that special blend of grief and glee which we reserve for other people's disasters."
Three and a quarter stars.

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