Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Goodbye LookThe Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"'I have a secret passion for mercy,' I said. 'But justice is what keeps happening to people.'"

I often wish that Ross Macdonald's novels ended before the denouement. With very few exceptions his endings are big disappointments and seem to mar the wonderful novels. The Goodbye Look (1969), the 15th entry in the celebrated Lew Archer series, is unfortunately one of the most obvious cases of an ending going awry.

Lew Archer is hired by John Truttwell, a lawyer for Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers, a well-to-do couple from Pacific Point (Macdonald's fictional Southern California town modeled probably on Newport Beach). Only one thing has been stolen from the Chalmerses during a strange burglary - an expensive jewelry box that contained some letters from the past. To make matters more complicated Nicholas, their son who is just about to graduate from college, has disappeared. Archer soon learns from Nick's fiancée that the young man's whole life seems to have changed in the last few days, and that he has been contemplating suicide. The change has been precipitated by his meeting a middle-aged woman, named Jean, accompanied by a man whom Archer soon finds killed. The woman's father, Eldon, long considered dead, emerges as the key figure in the background of the story.

The plot of The Goodbye Look is like a clump of tangled thread in a basket. You try to find a loose end but there is none. Instead several threads lead to another clump, even more hopelessly tangled. The group of people from the present time frame, late 1960s - the Chalmerses, Nick, Truttwell, Jean, some others - are connected to another group of people from the past, the mid-1940s and mid-1950s, the times when crucial, dramatic events - bank embezzlement and deaths - occurred. As usual in Macdonald's works, virtually all that is happening now is a direct consequence of the past events.

There is a touching thread that shows the relationship between Archer and one of the female characters. This late-middle-age affair (the combined age of the couple is over 100) is brief yet meaningful for both people, as beautifully described by the author:
"We merged our lonelinesses once again, in something less than love but sweeter than self."
Some of the best writing in the novel involves these two lonely people linked by their honesty and the long trail of disappointments with their past. Archer's wisdom and compassion, his "passion for mercy" are juxtaposed with the practice of justice, which provides an extraordinarily apt characterization of how Macdonald wants to see his hero. None of the hard-boiled nonsense often quoted by reviewers. It is thus a great pity that the extreme convolutions of the plot weaken the novel.

A substantial part of the plot takes place in San Diego (in the novel the city is often referred to as Dago), which became my hometown thirty-four years ago. Point Loma, La Jolla, the Cove, Imperial Beach - all these places are real; even many street names in The Goodbye Look are real. I just wish the author spent some time painting the San Diego landscapes with his masterful prose rather than tying the plot into knots.

Three stars.

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