Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Instant EnemyThe Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Our hands touched as he gave the picture back to me. I felt a kind of short-circuit, a buzzing and burning, as if I had grounded the present in the actual flesh of the past.
Time blurred like tears for an instant.

My current re-read of The Instant Enemy (1968), the fourteenth entry in the extraordinary series featuring the private eye Lew Archer, has been a pleasant surprise. The excellent writing, Ross Macdonald's trademark, is thoroughly satisfying and while the plot is extremely complicated it holds attention almost to the very end. I think the novel is a bit underrated in that it is not universally considered one of the best in the series.

Archer arrives in a mansion in Woodland Hills where he meets Mr. and Mrs. Sebastian who blame each other for their 17-year-old daughter, Sandy, running away from home. What's worse, she seems to have taken the shotgun and a box of shells with her. The Sebastians suspect that Sandy is with Davy, a young man with criminal past. They hire Archer to bring their daughter back home since Mr. Sebastian is deadly afraid of offending his boss, Mr. Hackett, and does not want to contact the police. With the help of a friend of Sandy Archer quickly finds the missing girl but Davy assaults Archer and the young couple manage to escape. The case quickly grows to vast proportions: it involves kidnapping, murders, and - of course - connections emerge to events from a long time ago. The main characters involved in both the present and the past time frames are Mr. Hackett, his family, and a retired cop still working on an unsolved case. Everything seems to center on Davy and people close to him: his probation officer as well as his high-school counselor have important roles in the plot. While Davy may be driven by the need to understand his roots, almost everything that everybody else does goes back to money and sex.

The web of interconnections between so many people involved in the case is supremely complicated, yet the author manages the tangle of threads with a steady hand almost to the very end. The classical Macdonald's present and past setup is multidimensional yet clear. The stunning phrase from the epigraph, "as if I had grounded the present in the actual flesh of the past," distills the essence of the author's method of constructing the plot. Unlike some other Macdonald's works The Instant Enemy does it not rely on artificial devices to move the plot or on convenient coincidences. Archer even notices:
"Coincidences seldom happen in my work. If you dig deep enough, you can nearly always find their single bifurcating roots."
The classic Macdonald prose wonderfully captures Southern California vistas:
"Late afternoon sunlight spilled over the mountains to the west. The light had a tarnished elegiac quality, as if the sinking sun might never rise again. On the fairway behind the house the golfers seemed to be hurrying, pursued by their lengthening shadows."
The story is captivating almost to the very end, but then it suddenly breaks and disappoints in a major plot twist. The convoluted plot is like a clock spring that has been wound too tight. One turn too many and… Snap! Everything breaks apart to leave the clockwork gaping.

The references to repressed memories of one of the characters sound silly, yet, after all, this was written in 1967 and the New Age shtick is understandable. By the way, Archer notices graffiti saying MAKE SENSE NOT WAR, a nice Sixties twist.

And one more lovely Macdonald quote:
”Cases break in different ways. This case was opening, not like a door or even a grave, certainly not like a rose or any flower, but opening like an old sad blonde with darkness at her core.”
Three and three quarter stars.

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