The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 3 March 2018

The Moving Target

by Ross Macdonald

The hard-boiled Los Angeles detective mystery is a well-traveled subgenre of its very own. Its greatest and most-well-known writer was Raymond Chandler, with his gritty and witty, rambling and erudite, stories and novels. There have been many such writers since the genre flourished forth in the 1930s and 1940s. Ross Macdonald is another of those, a writer who took up from Chandler and went on to inspire others in his own wake (including the likes of Sue Grafton, another writer of the mythical Santa Barbara they both called Santa Teresa). This 1949 book is the first of Macdonald's Lew Archer series of novels (and stories).

We meet Archer already in action, in a classic sort of opening to these hard-boiled novels, driving to an elegant house to meet the client. Here, it's a wheelchair-bound woman looking for her husband, who went missing just the day before. What unfolds is a complex, body-strewn romp between Santa Teresa and Los Angeles. There are many leads that come just from Macdonald's literary style and construction. There is the missing man's personal pilot; the young daughter of the missing man, in love with the pilot, or so we're led to believe. There are associates and seedy sorts of characters in dive bars and elegant hotels. There are so many potentially seedy connections that the reader is not quite sure where any of them would lead. There is the cult leader living in the man's spare ranch house; the chanteuse in the piano bar; truckloads of illegal immigrants; abandoned dance halls and miles of gritty highway. And, along with the many leads, there are numerous motivations and the occasional character who just drops away, even though they seemed so key at the beginning. The book is an entertainment. Lew Archer is insightful, self-deprecating, funny and literate (suiting an author with a PhD in literature). But his isn't a happy lot. Anyone familiar with traumatic brain injury may be concerned by how often he gets knocked out from behind. But the book is satisfying. It is rooted firmly in its time (not long after World War 2) and its place (the gritty communities and remote spots of Southern California's coastal hills). It's all just the beginning. There are 17 other Lew Archer novels and another nine shorter works. The character develops from here, grows more complex, and eventually into a voice all his own.

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