The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald

March 5, 2008 at 11:39 pm (Book review, books, California, Mystery fiction)

I’ve already written fairly extensively about Ross MacDonald. (See The Way Some People Die.) And I just posted a quote from The Doomsters this past Sunday. But can I read a MacDonald novel and not write about it? Never!

So I thought I’d concentrate on the language of the novel. As I was reading, I placed post-it notes at particularly memorable passages. So of course, by the time I finished the book, it resembled the literary version of a porcupine, fairly bristling with little yellow scraps of paper. (How, one wonders, did we ever manage before the invention of post-it notes?)

doomster.jpg The Doomsters (1958) has a strange opening: “I was dreaming about a hairless ape who lived in a cage by himself. His trouble was that people were always trying to get in.” Lew Archer is awakened from this hallucinatory vision by someone knocking at the side door. It’s a young man, wild-eyed, dishevelled, agitated. His name is Carl Hallman and he has just escaped from a nearby mental hospital. Archer lets him in. And of course, into the private detective’s life Hallman brings the inevitable world of trouble. Welcome to Archer/MacDonald country, where love shades into hate in an instant; motives are nothing if not suspect; women are either saints, lushes, whores, or some combination thereof; corruption, especially among public officials, is rampant; and family members desperate for money and power seem hellbent on destroying one another.

Sounds like rough terrain, doesn’t it? It is. It can be violent, depressing, hopeless. Why do I keep returning to it? I don’t know.

Well, I do know, sort of. There is something grimly compelling about watching these families implode like something out of a Greek tragedy. The glimpse of a used-to-be southern California, with its vast orange groves and its oil wells, certainly fascinates. And finally, there’s the mordant wit, the economy of expression, the figurative language and the rapier-sharp dialog that make Ross MacDonald’s prose so compelling:

“I went in through the curtains, and found myself in a twilit sitting room with a lighted television screen. At first the people on the screen were unreal shadows. After I sat and watched them for a few minutes, they became realer than the room. The screen became a window into a brightly lighted place where life was being lived, where a beautiful actress couldn’t decide between career and children and had to settle for both.

“Veins squirmed like broken purple worms under the skin of his nose. His eyes held the confident vacancy that comes from the exercise of other people’s power.

“She had the false assurance, or abandon, of a woman who has made a sexual commitment and swung her whole life from it like a trapeze.

“The dining-room had a curious atmosphere, unlived in and unlivable, like one of those three-walled rooms laid out in a museum behind a silk rope: Provincial California Spanish, Pre-Atomic Era.

“Headlights went by in the road like brilliant forlorn hopes rushing out of darkness into darkness.

“‘He oughtn’t to have ran,’ [Sheriff] Ostervelt said. ‘I’m a sharpshooter. I still don’t like to kill a man. It’s too damn easy to wipe one out and too damn hard to grow one.’

The Doomsters is the seventh of the eighteen Lew Archer novels. While it has many of the signature qualities that make this series so memorable, it is not without flaws, the chief of which is a verbose, almost hurried explanation of what has actually occurred in the course of a very complicated investigation. This lengthy exposition is delivered by a single character and is crowded into the novel’s concluding chapters. It was the only time the plot lost momentum. And I have to say that if anything, it left me even more confused about just who did what and why.

But up until that point, I was, as usual, enthralled. The Doomsters marks the end of MacDonald’s apprenticeship, as it were. It was followed by the terrific Galton Case, The Wycherly Woman, and my all time favorite, The Zebra-Striped Hearse.

I thought the title of this book was some kind of made-up word. Turns out it was made-up all right, but not by Ross MacDonald. On p.226, he quotes these lines:

‘Sleep the long sleep; / The Doomsters heap / Travails and teens around us here…’

I googled them and found that they were from a poem by Thomas Hardy: “To an Unborn Pauper Child.” Well, that’s what you get when you have a writer of hardboiled fiction who also happens to have a Ph.D. in English (awarded by the University of Michigan in 1951).

ross-macdonald.jpg Ross MacDonald 1915-1983


  1. The Year in Mystery: Group One, Part Two « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] year I went back to two of my favorite crime fiction greats of the past, Georges Simenon and Ross MacDonald. Both are masters at creating atmospheric thrillers shot through with crisp, no-nonsense dialogue; […]

  2. The Listening Walls, by Margaret Millar « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] lack the tragic sense of life so poignantly bodied forth in the works of her husband, the  great Ross MacDonald, but she more than makes up for it by the irony and precision with which she exposes human foibles […]

  3. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series; Archer Mayor‘s wonderfully intelligent procedurals; Ross MacDonald, whose crafty plotting and eloquently spare prose style brought the American private eye tradition to […]

  4. Peter McCaffrey said,

    Ross MacDonald is one of the great underrated American writers and I think that The Doomsters is a highly underrated book. Mac Donald performs an amazing technical feat in the book. The entire book is told in real time until the last two or three pages when he introduces a flashback within a flashback The effect is breathtaking and the episode contains one of my favorite lines, when Archer states that an emotion “Fell through me like a feather in a vacuum.” It’s sad and poignant and unforgettable. I think it’s his greatest book.

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