by Ross Macdonald (pen name for Ken Millar)
Publisher: Bantam Books
Summary: A mysterious Frenchman invades the upper-class social circles in Montevista, California. Mayhem ensues. Private eye Lew Archer must find the truth. This is one of the best entries in Ross Macdonald’s excellent Archer series.
Review: Someone did something horrible years ago. Today, that bad choice comes home to roost and private eye Lew Archer is called in to pick up the pieces. Such is the basic plot of all of Ross Macdonald’s Archer novels.
Black Money is one of his best, and it typifies the Archer series. In Black Money, a wealthy young man named Peter Jamieson calls Archer to help him win back his estranged girlfriend from a Frenchman with a murky past. Predictably, Archer discovers layer upon layer of deceit and hypocrisy.
The novel has several strong aspects. Macdonald develops an intricate plot and sustains the book’s momentum over 201 pages. Also, the characters are well drawn and complex, though all of them are tragic. Finally, Macdonald’s prose is strong; he had a gift for describing settings and events in beautiful – if simple – language.
Macdonald began his career publishing fairly-straightforward mysteries. As time passed, he began to add social and political commentary to his books. In Black Money, the mysterious Frenchman at the center of the story – Martel – gives Macdonald a chance to discuss some of his concerns.
I don’t want to delve too far into the Martel character, because doing so would spoil Black Money. But, as a clue, one of the characters says of Martel “He may not even be Caucasian” (p. 2). Usually, I dislike mysteries that include overt social commentary, because, in most cases, these novels fail both as mysteries and commentaries. However, in Black Money Macdonald does a nice job of blending these two disparate elements.
Nice Prose & A Little Philosophy
Macdonald was a strong writer and it shows in Black Money. I particularly like his descriptions of nature; for example, Archer notes that “I drove back into the foothills. The slopes were still green from the rains. The white and purple flowers on the brush gave out a smell like the slow breath of sunlight” (p. 35).
One persistent theme in the Archer novels is the disillusionment of middle-age. Black Money is no different; it contains the following description of a burned-out physician –
He glanced up at his framed diplomas on the wall. There was a puzzled expression in his eyes, as if he couldn’t remember how he had acquired them. His expression turned faraway, further and further away, as if his mind was climbing back over the curve of time to the source of his life (p. 160).
If the reader pays careful attention, he or she can glean clues from the insights offered by these middle-aged burnouts. For example, one character notes that
It’s dangerous to get what you want, you know. It sets you up for tragedy. But my poor son can’t see that. Young people can’t learn from the misfortunes of their elders (p. 20).
In addition to the overused “past-influences-the-present” plot, the other main weakness of Macdonald’s novels is his private eye. Often, Archer isn’t likable. In Black Money, Archer’s overweight client is pondering what to order for dessert and the following dialogue occurs with the private eye –
“I can’t decide what to have for dessert.”
“You don’t need dessert.”….
“I don’t know whether to have a chocolate eclair or a hot fudge sundae,” he said seriously.
“That isn’t funny. My body needs fuel.”
“You’ve already stoked it with enough fuel to run a Matson liner to Honolulu.”
He flushed. “You seem to forget that I’m your employer, and you’re my guest here” [at a private club].
“I do, don’t I? … Tell me something about Ginny.”
“After I get my dessert.”
“Before. Before you eat yourself stupid.”
“You can’t talk like that to me.”
“Somebody should. …” (p. 49).
One aspect of Black Money that partially mitigates Archer’s obdurate personality, is that some of the characters tell Archer that he is a jerk. One woman says, “You’re full of sententious remarks, aren’t you? You’re fuller than La Rouchefoucald, or my husband. But you can’t solve actual problems with words…” (p. 115).
Summary – In Praise of Highbrow Mysteries
The Archer novels will appeal to mystery fans who want books that are better-crafted than is the typical “potboiler.” Black Money offers strong writing, good characters, a vivid California setting, and a complex plot. Unfortunately, it suffers from some of the Archer books’ drawbacks as well.
Back in the 1990s, Black Money was the second Macdonald novel that I read. While my favorite Archer novel is The Chill, Black Money still stands as one of the best. Mystery fans owe it to themselves to read some of the Archer novels.