Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Harper (1966)

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 30 Mar 2009

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    You're getting a lot of terrific intel from the other Rare Birds, so I'll keep my response brief. I've read them all, and I agree with Mario's assessment of the beginning of the series being far more indebted to Chandler's example than the later books. There's also quite a bit more direct violence (in other words, stuff that doesn't happen "on camera" if you catch my meaning).

    All in all I think that MacDonald really began to hit his stride during the late 50s (especially by the time of the publication of THE DOOMSTERS, and by that I mean that he really had found his own voice. This led to his hey-day during the 60s: THE CHILL, THE GALTON CASE, THE GOODBYE LOOK, THE WYCHERLY WOMAN, THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE and MacDonald's personal favorite from his series, BLACK MONEY (a re-imagining of THE GREAT GATSBY, one of his favorite works of fiction) come to mind.

    In a way I envy you just coming across this terrific series. Although I can read these books over and over again, I can never again discover them for the first time.

    I recently wrote a review of THE DOOMSTERS for Patricia Abbott's Forgotten Books Blog, and I've enclosed the text of that review below, in case you're interested.

    All the Best-


    *THE DOOMSTERS by Ross MacDonald*

    So hey, I just read this terrific book by a major writer in the mystery canon. In it, a world-weary private investigator allows himself to get sucked in to the domestic problems of a rich, prominent Southern California family. As the story plays out, the P.I. uncovers a number of old secrets, all of which point toward a long-covered up crime committed by a member of the prestigious family's eminently respectable older generation. The current family crisis is a direct result of that original crime (or, if you prefer, "sin"), and also invariably involves a relatively blameless member of the family's younger generation.

    The author of course is Ross MacDonald. And the paragraph above could describe most of the books he wrote from the mid-fifties onward. It's been said of MacDonald that for the second half of his career he told one story over and over, but he told it so well, and varied the details enough that few readers cared. Titles such as THE DROWNING POOL, THE CHILL, THE WYCHERLY WOMAN, THE GALTON CASE, and BLACK MONEY bear this out. In fact, beginning with THE CHILL in 1960, MacDonald had a decade-long run of acclaimed books utilizing variations of the above basic plot framework.

    But what about his earlier work? MacDonald's series hero Lew Archer started out a hard-boiled member of the Hammett/Chandler school, but evolved into something completely different. Over the course of the series, Archer becomes a less and less obtrusive observer of the manifold ways in which families and their various pathologies can prey upon their children.

    THE DOOMSTERS, published in 1959 (a year before the land-mark THE CHILL) chronicles Archer's transition from hard-boiled, physical, wise-cracking P.I. to quasi-social worker, with terrific results. The vestiges of MacDonald's earlier penchant for action scenes are there (including Archer being attacked and placed in a sleeper hold in his own car by a client who then steals said car). So, too is MacDonald's evolving strong voice and trademark elegiac language: "Before the door closed, one of them broke into a storm of weeping. The noise of grief is impersonal, and I couldn't be sure which one of them it was. But I thought it must have been Mildred. Her loss was the worst. It had been going on for a long time, and was continuing."

    With deft characterization, a strong, if familiar plot, and the words of the one of the 20th century's great writers, THE DOOMSTERS is on a par with MacDonald's best work during the 60s. Lost in the roar of critical acclaim that MacDonald received as a result of the publication of THE CHILL a year later, THE DOOMSTERS has been unfairly forgotten. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, and it' well worth a read.

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