The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"The problem involved: A Nympho Movie Star - An Alcoholic Millionaire - Ambivalent Cops - Assorted Junkies - Ambulance-Driving Ghouls - An Honest Lawyer - Robbery - Blackmail - Kidnapping - Murder - Only Ross Macdonald can weld all these into one absolutely air-tight mystery that bets the reader he can't solve it before the last breath-taking page!"
(Idiotic and misleading blurb on the back cover of the 1971 printing of a paperback)
The Ferguson Affair (1960) will probably be the last novel in my "Re-read complete Macdonald" project. There exist two early novels that I have not read, but judging by the sub-standard
that comes from the same period and which I have recently reviewed here I have very little interest in reading them. Of course Mr. Macdonald (Kenneth Millar in private life) is known for his extraordinary Lew Archer series, all 18 installments of which I have reviewed on Goodreads. Alas, this stand-alone novel - more of a thriller than a detective story - barely rises to the level of weakest entries in the Archer series.
The story is narrated by Bill Gunnarson, a lawyer in the fictional Southern California town of Buenavista. As a public defender he is assigned one Ella Barker as a client, a nurse in the local hospital, who sold a stolen diamond ring to a local pawnshop. Police - who are trying to nab a notorious burglary gang - want to get to the gang leaders through Ms. Barker, but she is too scared to talk. When Gunnarson begins checking the facts of the case, the pawnshop owner is beaten to death. This forces Ella to reveal the truth at least partially and the lawyer learns about the mysterious Larry Gaines, whom Ella saw with a woman resembling Holly May, a movie actress. The woman is married to a rich Canadian oilman who currently resides in California. The presumed Ms. May and Larry seem to have disappeared together. The case expands and eventually involves more murders.
The rather conventional plot is not really worthy of particular praise. The classical Macdonald motif - past events that cast deep shadows upon the present - is underemphasized. Implausibility of situations and conversations and overuse of coincidence as a plot device substantially weaken the novel. Also, I am not really convinced by any of the characters; they do not have the requisite human depth. Mr. Gunnarson's is a particularly bland characterization, and his total dedication to work at the expense of his wife who is just about to give birth to their first child is not at all believable. I find the first conversation between the spouses totally flat, artificial, and full of clichés. People do not talk like that. The second one is better and adds a little zest.
While I generally dislike plot twists, I have to admit that the first surprise sprung by Mr. Macdonald is superb. The second one, in turn, I find cheap, silly, and unnecessary. And the dramatic, cinematic scene of a sort of shootout should better be forgotten.
But the worst disappointment is the writing. I have not found even a one-sentence example of the great Macdonald prose I got accustomed to look forward to, thus I had to use the moronic cover blurb for the epigraph. Also, the writing reads significantly more dated than in the Archer novels. Sort of a fizzling, sad end to my Macdonald project.
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