Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Black Money

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Black Money (Knopf, 1965).

I have been reading some of Ross Macdonald's detective fiction from the 1950s and 1960s lately. These haven't aged quite as well as Chandler, but they are still excellent reads and I am enjoying them a good deal.

I like how they have the velocity of avalanches. Macdonald's lead character, Lew Archer, will take a case and grab hold for dear life as it barrels down a hill instantly. I've read four of these now and that's the only common trait that they all share, this manic acceleration toward secrets and toward things that people have really been trying to bury and forget.

The fourth book that I have read is 1965's Black Money, the thirteenth in a series of eighteen books featuring Archer. This character was played in two feature films by Paul Newman, and it's very easy to visualize and hear that actor as Archer. This time out, he's hired by a jilted fellow to get the dirt on his ex's very weird and troubling new boyfriend, a guy who is talking like a big shot about being on the run from political turmoil in France. To say that there's some question about his bona fides is an understatement.

I really enjoy the very realistic feel of these books, particularly where money is concerned. Archer shares Philip Marlowe's need to find the truth, but he also needs to ensure that his expenses are going to be covered. This time out, Archer is certain that there is more to learn about how the increasingly bloody events of the present are tied into a suicide from seven years previously, and he's glad that his client didn't specifically tell him that the job was finished after Mr. Pretends-to-Be-French ends up dead, because that way he can spend a few more hours making people relive that old tragedy.

I also really enjoy the cut-with-a-knife tension in these books. Both the violence and the sexual energy are painfully tight. There's very little actual bed-hopping here, but Archer meets so many people looking for a way out, of poor decisions, of bad marriages, of the lower-light nothing of bottom-rung academia, that it would be merciful if he found some way to bring somebody a means of positive escape, but of course, he can't. These stories tend to deal with the suburbs outside of Los Angeles, increasing the sense of desperation for escape as the sprawl moves away from the heart of the city. These are bleak, fast-moving stories that embrace most of the hard-boiled tropes while blinking in the harsh, colorful light of the 1960s. Recommended.

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