ffb: The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald

this is the 126th in my series of posts on forgotten or seldom read books

The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald © 1962, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, May 1962 hardcover.
This edition: Bantam Books mass market paperback, 13th printing May 1988 – mystery, the 10th Lew Archer novel

Zebra-Striped HearseIt had been so long since I read one of Ross Macdonald’s novels I wasn’t sure when or which one it was, but I was certain I hadn’t read this one, so it seemed perfect for this week’s Friday Forgotten Books single-author post.

One of the things I can count on with Macdonald is complicated plotting and straight ahead story line. I like both those things, especially in a P.I. novel. This one begins with a scene so classic it’s become a cliché: an attractive woman walks into the P.I.’s office, sits down, crosses her (attractive) legs and begins talking.

The P.I. in this one is Lew Archer, the location is Los Angeles, the time is the early Sixties. The woman is trying to act as a buffer between her husband, who has an appointment to see Archer in half an hour, and Archer, who may not otherwise understand what she sees as the true nature of the problem.

Said problem, we find out when the husband, Colonel Blackwell arrives early, is that his daughter has fallen head-over-heels in love with a handsome young painter of no means and wants to marry him. Gold digger, the Colonel is sure. The job for Archer is to look into the painter’s background, with an eye, we can safely assume, to discrediting the fellow and thus discouraging the daughter from marrying him. Sounds simple enough.

But no. The case turns from a simple background check into a hunt for facts in Mexico, an investigation into a murder in San Francisco, a search for a body in Lake Tahoe. Typically of Ross Macdonald’s plotting, if you’re one of those who tries to keep ahead of the detective and figure out who did what, when, you’re likely to be wrong. That’s what happened to me, and after that I stayed wrong until the last page.

There are times when reading Ross Macdonald, or John D. MacDonald, Chandler, Hammett, etc., when I almost feel like I have double vision, as if one scene is overlaid by another, neither quite in focus. I rarely succumb to the temptation to go back to previous chapters and re-read, or confirm a name or place or whatever it is that seems to give me the feeling. After a while the feeling slips away and later I’ll remember it only when there’s another turn in the string of events which reminds me of it. If that doesn’t make any sense, that’s okay, it’s just a feeling I sometimes get while reading good hardboiled P.I. fiction.

Zebra-Striped Hearse backAs much as I like reading Macdonald, and that’s a lot, I’m not sure I could read one after another, back to back. So I’ll get back to Lew Archer pretty soon (after I catch up on the backlog, see the previous post) as there are several more I’ve yet to read, but I’ll finish something else first, meanwhile savoring this one.

One interesting thing about this edition is that the blurb on the back cover is not for this book. A misprint has resulted in the blurb for Macdonald’s The Underground Man landing on it instead (see right). Odd.

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More Friday Forgotten Book posts
can be found at Patti Abbott’s fine blog Pattinase

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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16 Responses to ffb: The Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald

  1. Walker Martin says:

    I first read the Lew Archer novels back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. A couple years ago I thought I’d reread one or two and see if they held up a second reading. Not only did they hold up but I ended up rereading all 18 of the Archer novels, one after another. I place Macdonald up with Hammett and Chandler, or very close to their level.

  2. Really great choice Richard. And yes, I spotted that screw up with the blurb too! I do love Macdonad’s books – what you said about the double vision thing is very interesting – is it to do with first person narration, perhaps? Either way, this is one of the great books in the series, though my absolute favourite remains The Chill.

  3. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I read this one too, finishing it yesterday. I liked the way he laid out a classic scenario – did the con man target the overprotected daughter of the rich controlling father and is he also a murderer? – and then made it clear everything was not as it seems. No, it’s not THE CHILL but it was pretty good.

  4. I enjoyed THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE when I first read it back in the Seventies. I’m with Sergio on THE CHILL.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    You are right to say that reading the one after another is probably a mistake although I did it forty years ago and loved every minute.

  6. Yvette says:

    Like Patti, I read them back to back too, Richard. Some years ago. But damn if I can remember anything other than I loved THE GALTON CASE (my first Lew Archer) and the burned to a crisp moment in THE DROWNING POOL and a couple of other assorted bits and pieces. That’s the way it goes when you’re an old lady getting older by the minute. So maybe it’s time for a total re-read. Beginning with the short stories which I seem to have overlooked. So much of the modern stuff I’ve been reading lately has been lackluster that I might just concentrate on vintage for the time being. Of course the moment I say that, I’ll discover something new and wonderful.

  7. Richard says:

    Sergio, I think the double vision-like feel I get sometimes is the result of complicated plots laying twists and turns over scenes from which I’d gotten an impression now altered by new information, giving the scenes a layered feel as I read the book. For instance, in this book there were some scenes set in Lake Tahoe / Reno. They could be laid one on top of the other like transparencies and read bottom to top independently of the rest of the book to create a separate way to look at the events which occurred in that location.

    I’m probably still not making any sense…

  8. Hi Richard, I think i see what you mean – in Macdonald’s work I would venture that this is very much intentional, Archer’s understanding of the ‘story’ only making sense when he can put together all the various layers of personal history and the way that they tesselate together, seen as a narrative stretching backwards and forwards – I think you’re spot-on and it is the way that the generational aspect of his stories really distinguish themselves from the previous work of Hammett and Chandler, leaving them in this important sense behind.

  9. Richard, I’m looking forward to savouring some hardboiled fiction in coming months, perhaps a novel each by Ross Macdonald and his contemporaries and followers. I like the shoot-from-the-hip writing style of these novels.

  10. You picked one of the Macdonald’s I haven’t read. And its just been added to my next big Amazon grab.

  11. Richard says:

    Sergio, I think you’ve got it, that’s undoubtedly what he was trying for and how I felt it. Cool.

  12. Richard says:

    Prashant, that’s a great idea, and some darn good reading in the bargain.

  13. Richard says:

    David, go for it! I thought this was a good one, as did Jeff in his review.

  14. Kelly says:

    Good, comprehensive review. You picked a less popular title, but I don’t think Macdonald had any real misfires that I know of.

  15. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: November 2013 | Past Offences

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