Monday, July 11, 2011

38. Meet Me at the Morgue by Ross MacDonald

So last week, I read a Margaret Millar book.  She is my new favourite discovery, but I feel I should give some time to her husband as well, Ross Macdonald.  I'm not quite sure how it all works today, but there was a while where Ross Macdonald was one of the biggest writers of detective fiction, often spoken of in the same breath as Raymond Chandler.  I have only read one of his books, that I can remember, and I can't remember that as well.

Meet Me at the Morgue takes place in a town a little ways north of San Diego.  The protagonist is Probation Officer Howard Cross.  He gets involved in a complex kidnapping because one of his clients, the driver for the family whose boy is taken, appears to be the kidnapper.  However, the driver was very close with the boy and the whole thing smells so Cross starts to dig deeper.  The plot is very complicated, but quite well constructed.  What I really enjoyed about the book was that Cross does some real detecting.  He just keeps poking away at people and things until a new path reveals itself and then he goes down that.  Slowly, a bigger picture starts to reveal itself, as well as Cross's competency and character.  He's quite a tough guy, presaging, I guess, Macdonald's famous Lew Archer character.  This is some hardboiled stuff and everybody is kind of flawed and rotten and California is hot and edgy and deadening.
The Neptune Hotel stood in the limbo of side streets between the neons of the business section and the dark waterfront. Its own sign, ROOM WITH BATH, $1.50, flickered and went out and came to life again like a palsied lust.
  I was actually really enjoying the straightforward language for the first third or so and feeling a bit that at times Chandler got excessive with his language, and then passages like the one above started popping up with greater frequency.  At times, it went just a teeny bit too far for my personal tastes.  Another big flaw for me was the forced love interest that develops between Cross and one of the suspects.  I felt like some editor pushed this on Macdonald (or he pushed it on his story in anticipation of the public or some editor).  It didn't ring true and was distracting.  Howard Cross, hard-boiled probation officer is just fine on his own melancholy driven self.  This diversion only took a few pages though and really doesn't damage what is a sordid, engaging tale.  This stuff is the real-deal, though, hard-edged, noir.  I'm definitely going to be reading more Ross Macdonald. 

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