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black money

19 november 2015

Black Money (1966) is one of the lesser Lew Archer novels, and my comments will be brief.

Sometimes a lesser novel is more critically interesting than a great one, but that's not the case here either. Black Money seems to show Ross Macdonald at something of a strain, working through themes and attitudes a bit mechanically. Even his usually inexhaustible simile generator seems to be running on automatic.

As in The Chill, a young man approaches Archer for help with a skittish young woman – this time not his wife but his fiancée. Ginnie Fablon has run away from young Paul, intent on marrying a character named Francis Martel. Martel claims to be a Frenchman who's become persona non grata to Charles de Gaulle. He's shown up in Montevista, California (just north of Pacific Point, I'm sure you know where that is) with a Bentley and a big satchel of money, and he's about to carry off Ginnie, the best-looking blonde in the tony suburb's high society.

As usual, Archer starts interviewing people, who lead him to other people, some of whom get beaten up and stuffed in the trunks of their Cadillacs and others of whom wind up dead. He visits tennis clubs and elegant homes and hobo jungles and Las Vegas. His forays into the case keep drawing him back to the campuses of local colleges, though, where he naturally finds cesspools of moral turpitude far worse than Vegas.

The "black money" of the title does originate in Las Vegas, as illicit profits skimmed from a casino. But it's as much of a MacGuffin as cash money can get. The motive for murder in Black Money is desire, and desire more cultural even than sexual: the desire of the New World for the cachet of the old, for Paris, the "luminous city," for literature and art and the theater.

It's hard-boiled of course, but Black Money also tends toward the corrosive. Macdonald represents racism and misogyny, and that's to be expected in a hard-boiled, but he also lets Archer participate in it, and seems drawn back again and again to a kind of nausea about Mexicans and Jews and most especially, women. Late in the novel there's a description of a beautiful woman's body (attributed second-hand to the murderer) that is almost parodic in its revulsion. But there's also Archer's attitude toward women:

The easy ones were nearly always trouble: frigid or nympho, schizy or commercial or alcoholic, sometimes all five at once. Their nicely wrapped gifts of themselves often turned out to be homemade bombs, or fudge with arsenic in it. (540)
That doesn't even sound like Archer; that sounds like someone using Archer temporarily as a mouthpiece for someone even nastier than our anti-hero.

Macdonald, Ross. Black Money. 1966. In Archer at Large. New York: Knopf, 1970. 424-626.