The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald
The Way Some People Die is where MacDonald stops imitating Chandler and Hammet and becomes his own writer. It’s the best of the Lew Archer series so far (it’s number three) and it’s as twisted a piece of classic hardboiled as you could wish to read.
The cover above is the one I have, from Black Lizard which is a Vintage Crime imprint. It’s a great cover, and physically a nice book, but I couldn’t resist sharing this older cover with you which I also love.
Lew Archer is hired by a concerned mother to find her wayward daughter., Galatea. The daughter is “crazy for men”, and now she’s disappeared with one leaving a good job as a nurse behind and with the only news being a postcard from San Francisco. It’s not much of a case, girls leave home all the time, but Archer agrees to make some easy inquiries. Before he leaves the mother’s house he takes a look at a photo of Galatea:
Pretty was hardly the word. With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets.
As you’d expect, it’s not as simple as a young woman who’s grown up and left home. Archer isn’t the only person looking for Galatea and the man she ran away with may be as much a danger to her as the people she’s hiding from. All this and somewhere out there is a package that people are prepared to kill to find (yup, there’s a MacGuffin).
What follows is a byzantine web of greed, double-cross and murder with Archer painstakingly working his way through to unravel just what it is that Galatea has got herself mixed up in. Finding Galatea isn’t Archer’s problem, it’s keeping her alive once he’s found her. All that and Galatea herself is no maiden waiting to be rescued, she’s as hardboiled as the rest of them.
On the level of a detective story The Way Some People Die works extremely well. Archer’s methods make sense (mostly he talks to people, follows up connections, occasionally circles around to talk to someone again once he has new info, it’s dogged detective work). The plot though complicated isn’t needlessly so, by the end you can see why things played out as they did.
All the elements of a great hardboiled novel are present and correct. To actually be a great hardboiled novel though you need more than stock ingredients and snappy dialogue. You need to do something that others aren’t doing, or at least aren’t doing as well. You need to reach beyond the genre.
What raises this novel beyond just being solid genre work is MacDonald’s eye for psychological depth, mood, and description. The Way Some People Die is suffused with a pervasive sense of weariness and sadness.At one point Archer observes of Galatea’s mother:
She lived in a world where people did this or that because they were good or evil. In my world people acted because they had to.
Later, Archer finds himself in a motel room with a pretty girl turned junkie who makes a living conning out-of-towners into thinking they’re going to get lucky:
It was an ugly little room, walled and ceiled with cheap green plaster that reminded me of public locker rooms, furnished with one bed, one chair, one peeling veneer dresser and a rug the moths had been at. It was a hutch for quick rabbit-matings, a cell where lonely men could beat themselves to sleep with a dark brown bottle. The girl looked too good for the room, though I knew she wasn’t.
That’s great description, and it’s not the only example I could have used (there’s a brilliant blow-by-blow account of a fixed fight at one point). Good as it is though it isn’t where MacDonald becomes his own writer. It’s his characterisation that does that.
Take the character of Dowser. Dowser is a racketeer, a mobster, a rich man who lives in a gated house surrounded by bought women and hired men. So far so standard, but as Archer comes to know Dowser he sees a pathetic and empty man terrified of his own extinction.
Dowser is short, so short that even when he wears sandals by the pool he wears ones with two-inch heels. He can’t bear to be left alone, when his men leave the room he insists Archer stays until one of them returns. He can’t live without the validation of an audience, someone to talk to, to talk at. His real communication is in money, he can’t trust anyone he isn’t paying because he doesn’t know what they want.
It’s an extraordinary portrait. Dowser is humanised, but never ceases to be terrifying. He’s a monster, a hateful creation, and MacDonald brings out how pitiful Dowser is without the reader ever forgetting quite how dangerous Dowser is too and so without ever actually making him pitiable.
Dowser isn’t the only great character here. MacDonald is forensic, but also compassionate and in contrast to Dowser is Keith Dalloway. Dalloway is a failed actor, a man too good looking for his own good and a drunk. MacDonald takes what with most writers would be a minor supporting character and gives him humanity. What in a film would be almost a walk-on part becomes something much more here, a study of missed chances and a reminder of human frailty.
The reason great crime, more than any other genre, overlaps with literary fiction is that great crime doesn’t just ask what, it asks why too. MacDonald could have just made Dowser another mob boss from central casting, and if he had this would still have been a very solid novel. He could have made Dalling another good-looking act0r-wannabee, and the plot wouldn’t have suffered any.
MacDonald though asks why. He makes Dowser, Dalloway, Galatea, into real people who become more than just a mob boss, a patsy and a damsel in distress/femme fatale. The result is a book that’s no longer merely influenced by Hammet and Chandler but, that stands alongside them.