Sunday 18 December 2016

The Goodbye Look by Ross MacDonald

Lew Archer is a private eye, the creation of Ross MacDonald. And the New York Times called his adventures "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." 

That's quite a claim when you consider the competition includes Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And I'm not sure I entirely buy it.

But Ross MacDonald is an excellent writer, and The Goodbye Look is one of his best books. MacDonald's real name is Kenneth Millar. When he was looking for a pseudonym he actually chose "John MacDonald"...

There was a major problem with this pen name. There really was a John MacDonald, already writing crime fiction. As it happens, he's one of my favourite writers, and actually has the edge on Kenneth Millar.

Anyhow, once this fiasco was discovered, after the publication of Lew Archer's first adventure, both authors had to take evasive action, like ships avoiding a collision. 

Millar became John Ross MacDonald and the real MacDonald started using his middle initial and transformed to John D. MacDonald, whom he remained, while Millar finally settled on Ross MacDonald.  

What's in a name? Well, for a writer establishing his reputation, just about everything.

But The Goodbye Look comes from the other end of Millar's career. It is the 15th Lew Archer novel, published in 1969.  And it's a classic first person private eye novel with the character at the centre of the case (one Nick Chalmers) almost entirely absent from the narrative. This is quintessential detective novel technique — think of The Thin Man.

It's just beautifully written, with memorable descriptions of the physical — "the safe was about the diameter of a sixteen-inch gun and just as empty" and the psychological —  "I could feel the pressure of her cool insistence, like water against a dam".

Millar tells a fascinating story with vividly evoked characters — and they have memorable names: Truttewell, Lackland. My only worry was that I might not be able to keep track of them all. But at just the point where I began to feel this, the author gave a useful summary of the case so far, skillfully offering it at exactly the right moment. A true pro at work.

He also has splendid awareness of nature and wildlife, something which he has in common with John D. MacDonald.

The Goodbye Look is expertly told, addictively readable, terrifically engrossing and you find yourself racing through the pages.

It throws in a surprising love affair involving the hero, and it also features a Chandleresque dodgy doctor. And, although the Lew Archer novels became less action oriented as the year's passed, there is some sudden, explosive violence.

Archer is shot — accidentally, by a trigger happy cop. After a visit to the hospital he reflects that "the wound in my shoulder was beating like an auxiliary heart."

(Image credits: All the book covers are from Good Reads.)

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