The Barbarous Coast – Ross Macdonald

(Vintage Crime/Black Lizard 2007, originally published 1956)

Ross Macdonald was the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, who was married to Margaret Millar, also a writer of detective/mystery novels. His novels featuring private detective Lew Archer were written in the ‘hard-boiled’ tradition of Chandler and Hammett, though they contain more psychological depth and cynicism. Archer is a flawed but fundamentally decent man who cares about people – though he tries not to – and sympathises particularly with young people. The books, like Chandler’s, are set in California, though I think Macdonald’s are more grounded in a Californian reality than Chandler’s.

The Barbarous Coast begins at the exclusive Channel Club in Malibu, where the manager, Clarence Bassett, has called in Archer to try to protect him from or dispose of a young man, George Wall, who has been threatening him: Wall is married to a young woman named Hester Campbell, who used to dive at the club, and in whom Bassett had taken a (possibly overly) avuncular interest. Wall has not seen his wife for some time and is concerned that Bassett knows something about her disappearance.

Archer sees that Hester’s disappearance is really what both men want to have investigated – though possibly for different reasons – and so he starts doing so, coming across a cast of characters ranging from a former boxer turned film actor to a shop owner, and realising that part of his investigation turns on who killed Gabrielle Torres, a friend of Hester’s, at the club a year earlier.

Macdonald’s prose is taut and often sparely lyrical, with short, revealing description. Here, for example, is Simon Graff:

“A short, broad-shouldered man came down the steps from the vestibule. He walked towards us fussily, almost goose-stepping, glancing out over the pool and at the sea beyond it as if they were his personal possessions. The wind ruffled his crest of silver hair. Self-importance and fat swelled under his beautifully tailored blue flannel jacket. He was paying no attention to the woman trailing along a few paces behind him … He paused and chopped the air with his nose. His face was brown and burnished-looking.”

(p19)

Archer’s investigation takes him among film people and so reminds me a little of James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, though Archer tends to steer clear of the police if he can, though he later begins to focus on film executive Simon Graff and Graff’s psychologically disturbed wife Isobel.

The characters and setting, as usual with Macdonald, are sharply-drawn, believable and often sympathetic – Archer’s gift is to see them all as human, and to convey their humanity to the reader, even if they’re corrupt or venal or frightened or gullible. For example, Rina Campbell, Hester’s sister, tries to protect her sister and believes her lies, and is almost killed because of that trust. It’s a common theme with Macdonald’s books – the trust betrayed, leading to murder. People do get killed in The Barbarous Coast, and each time it happens it’s a shock – which is, I feel, how it should be.

I think Macdonald’s books are better than Chandler’s, because they have more psychological depth and fewer loose ends, and his writing is quietly workmanlike, without Chandler’s predilection for unusual metaphor.*

The Barbarous Coast is highly recommended, as are all of Macdonald’s crime novels.

* I do intend to review the six Philip Marlowe novels by Chandler which I’ve read, but will probably have to wait until I get my books back from my sister-in-law in Belgium.

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5 Responses to The Barbarous Coast – Ross Macdonald

  1. Pingback: Spotlight on the Wordpress.Com Book Bloggers! « Randomize ME

  2. J.P..Noble says:

    I have finished reading Barbarous Coast just now. The plot may remind you of Little Sister by Chandler. But the characetrisation is deeper and more profound, the characters all sadder, more complicated and more modern. You have a feeling that no one is completely innocent. The heartbreakings, the loneliness, the grief,etc overwhelm the reader. But Macdonald and Archer bring us out safely. The wounded girl crawling towards the coast is haunting.

    I read your review and liked it. Thank you.

    • Ela says:

      Thanks for your comment – I agree that Macdonald’s characters are more deeply felt than Chandler’s and more psychologically realistic. Chandler’s writing has a certain bravura that Macdonald’s lacks, but Marlowe is not as empathetic as Archer (and not as sympathetic a character, either, in my view).

  3. I read this novel perhaps ten years ago, and I remember liking it.
    All good mystery novels are highly re–readable; my examples would be one by a French writer (‘Un crime’, Bernanos), another by a Romanian author (‘Animale bolnave’, meaning ‘Sick Animals’, by Breban).

    • Ela says:

      Sebastien Japrisot is the only French writer of crime novels I’ve read – I’ve not even read Simenon. My reading French isn’t good enough to read novels in the original, and unfortunately translations aren’t always easy to come by in the UK, since there are so many English language crime novels available.

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