Wednesday, April 03, 2024

19. The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald

We went to Encore Books in NDG as a family as my wife wanted to do some hunting.  I had been here before and was somewhat disappointed.  They have a quite good collection of science fiction with a lot of older paperbacks but there mystery section was quite disappointing, all new big names.  However, I discovered a random shelf on the back side of an island that was four rows of old pulpy paperbacks, lots of men's adventure (some beautiful Fontana Eric Amblers) from a range of times.  This is the magic of the cluttered used book store!  I grabbed this Ross Macdonald on a whim, thinking it was Ross Thomas and because the first sentence grabbed me (probably more a nostalgia instinct because those 80s paperbacks were all around my house as a child).  It was only when I got home that I realized it was Macdonald, which also wasn't a bad thing and maybe even better.

So I jumped in and was surprised and to be honest reflexively disappointed that this wasn't a Lew Archer novel.  I continued on and became further disappointed when I found the initial setup kind of clunky and then downright bummed when it turns out the protagonist, defense lawyer Bill Gunnarson, has a pregnant wife at home who is naive and that he neglects.  I unfortunately am now all too aware of the Millar's rough marriage and their terrible, near-abusive treatment of their daughter and I could feel some of that post-WWII dysfunctional gender dynamics in the narrative.  Gunnarson has this super crazy rough day where he comes upon an antique store owner with his head bashed in when then dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital which leads to all kinds of other craziness and when he comes home hours late for the lamb his wife especially made for him, he refuses to tell her anything because he "can't"?!  I mean what the fuck white people from the '50s.  I'll grant you being hours late for dinner, but not even calling and then having no explanation. The behaviour all rests on such deep sexism that the woman is not only supposed to be at home but she shouldn't even be privy to your day's work because of some made-up lawyer code.

I would argue that this behaviour was even more sexist than was normal for the time period.  And what's even weirder, is that as I read through the book, I really started to get the feeling I was reading a Margaret Millar book.  So many of her themes are foremost in this book.  Now I need to read more Macdonald, as I suspect both their themes overlap so I could be wrong here, but I mean we have the private club with the swimming pool, we have a sympathetic look at the Mexican American community and several key characters, we have deep family secrets that go waaaay back.  Even the tone felt more Millar-like than Macdonald.  I know she did a lot of editing of his books and I'm wondering how far it went with this one (and maybe part of the reason why it isn't a Lew Archer).

The good news is that as the book went along, it got better and better.  The plot structure by the end is quite brilliant, delivering so much more than I anticipated from the opening set up.  We get a great set of really broken characters and a rich look at how they got there.  What I love about this book is that you learn these backstories via detecting.  It is shown in the sense that Gunnarson keeps digging until he finds their families and goes and talks to them and you get the whole damaged mess not just through what happened to them but seeing the old version of the people who did it to them.

Just for the record, the story involved initially a gang of burglars who appear to have some connection to the hospital for figuring out who is not at home.  The case appears to be broken open by the murder of the antique dealer who may have been selling the stolen goods, but starts to get much messier when an ex-movie star who is recently married to a Canadian oil tycoon (nice legit CanCon also here thanks to the Millars) gets kidnapped.  These two seemingly disparate cases are connected by a handsome but sleazy lifeguard at the club who has also disappeared.  Things get complicated and fun.  Recommended.

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