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Friday, January 28, 2011

Department of Book Reports: The Galton Case by Ross MacDonald

I first discovered Ross MacDonald in, of all places, Paris. It was my first visit, and I needed to pay my homagne to the great literary bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, founded by the legendary Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Joyce's Ulysses. What I should have done is purchase a copy of some Sartre tome and repaired to the nearest cafe, where I could somehow establish my American intellectual cred. Instead I purchased some paperback copies written by Ross MacDonald, whereupon passing French intellectuals could pass by me, seated at the cafe and snicker. I knew, of course, of MacDonald, having read Hammett and Chandler by this time, and had heard that MacDonald's writing rivaled those big boys.

I don't remember exactly which one I read first, or in what order I read them, but I devoured MacDonald's Lew Archer series. The book that struck me as the best (and apparently was MacDonald's favorite as well), was the Galton Case. It was the eighth of the Archer novels of the eighteen MacDonald ended up writing. The plot is fairly intricate (MacDonald was a master of plotting, much better than either Hammett or Chandler). It involves Archer (named for Sam Spade's murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon) being hired by a lawyer, Gordon Sable, to track down a missing person, the son of Maria Galton, who disappeared some twenty years previously. Mrs. Galton is dying, and wants to be reconciled with her prodigal. During the course of Archer's hunt, he also becomes involved in the problems of the attorney Sable and his wife, as well as their "houseboy" Culligan, who is no Jeeves, and not nearly as nice as Gielgud's butler to Arthur... The novel deals with, as so many of MacDonald's books do, with fractured families, alienated adolescents, and the times in which Archer lives and investigates. One of the more remarkable scenes in the book is the beating Archer takes from some gangsters that lays him in the hospital for sometime. It is vividly described by MacDonald. As our his characters, which include the town of Santa Teresa, where most of the Archer novels take place and is based on MacDonalds hometown of Santa Barbara. And there is a parody of the then au currant Beat poets in the character of Chad Bolling.

Ross MacDonald was the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar. He decided to use a nom de plume as his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar, had already established her career in the genre and he didn't want to trade on the name. MacDonald himself had suffered through painful years as a teen, and many of the situations Archer encounters are semi-autobiographical. By all accounts, he was a fine gentlemen, an early proponent of social causes, especially the then burgeoning Ecology movement. He was the kind of man who could have literary friends like Eudora Welty, with whom he corresponded for many years; and also be the kind of man Warren Zevon could turn to when Zevon's life needed some redirection. MacDonald succumbed to Alzheimer's Disease in 1983.

Some of you may know that two films were made from the Archer novels. Both starred Paul Newman. The first was called "Harper". Newman, at the time, was having a lot of success with movies that started with the letter H, like The Hustler and Hud, and so the title character was renamed from Archer to Harper. The eponymous movie was based on the first Archer novel, The Moving Target and was released in 1967 with a screenplay by William Goldman, who'd later do Newman's Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid. The other was "The Drowning Pool", with Newman once again playing Harper, and it was produced in 1975.

Read some Ross MacDonald. It'll do you some good. Many of his titles are available atJackson Street Books and other fine Independent bookstores We have used copies but new editions have been published by Vintage Crime.