My rating: 2 of 5 stars
“Lew Archer – the hardest of the hard-boiled dicks”
(a blurb on the cover of 1967 Bantam paperback printing of Black Money)
“The luminous city. It's a phrase I use for the world of spirit and intellect, the distillation of the great minds of past and present. [...] It takes in everything from Plato's Forms and Augustine's Civitas Dei to Joyce's epiphanies.” (Ross Macdonald, Black Money)
It must be difficult to combine pulp-style literature with subtle literary references in a mystery novel and it would take a tremendous effort to successfully blend action-packed plot with the subtlety of Joyce's epiphanies and the depth of Plato's and Augustine of Hippo's ideas. In my "Re-read Macdonald" project Black Money (1965), the thirteenth novel in Ross Macdonald’s (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) famous series featuring Lew Archer, follows The Chill and pales in comparison with the predecessor. By the way, the first of the epigraph quotes, the vile blurb on the cover, is outright false: Lew Archer is one of the most humane and least hard of all PIs in the genre. Well, in this country “hardest dick” is likely to sell more books than a humane character.
The events of the plot take place mainly in Montevista, a fictional Southern California town, a place where one can meet “maharajas, Nobel prize winners, and billionaires.” Lew Archer's client is Peter Jamieson, a rich family's young heir, who looks “like money about three generations removed from its source.” He has known Ginny Fablon since childhood, has always been infatuated with her and wanted her for his wife. He hires Archer to prevent Ginny from marrying a certain Francis Martel, who claims to be a French aristocrat, an opponent of President de Gaulle on the run from the agents of the French government. Peter is convinced that Martel is a fraud and wants Archer to expose him. In a rather preposterous development Archer gets a professor of French from the local liberal arts college to prepare a test in French history and literature that would settle the issue. Test results notwithstanding, the questions surrounding Martel’s identity remain and the test appears again in the plot in an even sillier context. The story involves two murders, and – obviously for Ross Macdonald – a traumatic event from the past: the suicide of Ginny's father plays a crucial role in shaping the present events. Connections emerge to shady characters who control illegal activities in Las Vegas casinos. A "little" cerebrovascular accident and an abortion add texture to the story.
The novel is an irritating mix of occasionally superb Macdonald prose and ridiculous plot components that seem to have come straight from pulp magazines. The middle part of the novel is the weakest: a dying person crawls over the threshold and utters enigmatic last words, a doctor freely shares details about his patients, a waitress overhears Archer's conversation and points out a familiar woman in the picture that Archer happens to be showing to his interlocutor at the very moment - an assortment of lame devices whose only purpose is to move the plot. The trajectories of various characters constantly intersect, but the whole tapestry of threads does not make as much sense as in The Chill.
Still, a novel written by Ross Macdonald can't all be bad. A cute quote to sweeten the review:
"His head looked like a minor accident on top of his huge neck and shoulders."Two and a half stars.
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