Thursday, November 17, 2016

Detectives in La-La Land

The Underground Man (1971/ Lew Archer #16) by Ross Macdonald: The fickle Santa Ana winds bring wildfires to Los Angeles as a preamble to murder and sorrow in this late-career Lew Archer hard-boiled-detective novel from Ross Macdonald. It's one of a handful of Macdonald's best-reviewed novels, and one can still see why: it's about as mournful and minutely observed a psychological study as one could ask for.

Lew Archer was certainly one of the most rueful detectives in American detective fiction, haunted by his own personal failures and by the seemingly endless sea of woe that each and every one of his cases plunged him into. This time around, Archer gets pulled into the disappearance of a neighbour's young son. Murder soon follows, along with the possible revelation of much earlier murder: there's more than a whiff of Greek tragedy in the ways in which the past shapes the present in Macdonald's novels. But there's also a sense of Existential randomness -- the effects often seem to have no moral relation to the causes.

This is a fine novel, detective or otherwise, shot through with cynical wit and sharp observations about character and landscape. While the hills around Los Angeles burn and then suddenly shift to life-threatening mudslides when the rains finally come, Archer searches for the best available solution to the case. Highly recommended.

The Monkey's Raincoat (1987/Elvis Cole #1) by Robert Crais: The first of Robert Crais's nouveau-noir novels about Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole and his laconic partner Joe Pike sets the model for many of Cole's subsequent adventures. Cole narrates in a snarky, cynical, but often heart-felt first-person voice. 

Cole minutely (frankly, too minutely) details everything he does: you'll know what he had for lunch, where he bought the ingredients, and what beer goes best with it. It's Crais's way of showing that as dippy as Cole's comments seem, he's always observing and evaluating everything around him in detail. Or maybe of offering the reader sandwich-making tips,

Hollywood coughs up a missing father-and-son case for Cole. But things quickly go bad. The Monkey's Raincoat shows Los Angeles at its best and worst, and Hollywood at its corruptive nadir. Guns and drugs and femmes fatale show up. There's an incompetent agent to be reckoned with, and an extremely sleazy producer.

There are a few flaws. Crais doesn't quite have Pike's character down yet -- a flaw only apparent in comparison to later novels. Cole's ability to sleep with every woman in a narrative is in place here, though Crais would later remove this element from the series. And the climax is almost hilariously "cinematic" -- which is to say that it's a blood-soaked, bullet-popping Assault on the Impregnable Fortress. Was it written with a movie deal in mind? Hey, Crais lives in Los Angeles too! Recommended.

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