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the instant enemy

14 june 2017

The Instant Enemy (1968) takes its title from a self-improvement list that Lew Archer finds among the belongings of a man he's investigating. The final two items on the list are "Don't hit people" and "Don't get mad and be an instant enemy" (462). Too late on both counts, where Archer is concerned. Yet the fact that Davy Spanner is making such lists at all counts in his favor, in Ross Macdonald's novel about the obscure roots of evil.

The Instant Enemy doesn't really wax too philosophical about nature vs. nurture, though. Nor does it have very much of Macdonald's nickel-plated writing. The simile machine of his earlier work seems finally exhausted. There's always a lot of dialogue in an Archer novel, but this one is almost entirely comprised of dialogue; the running commentary in Archer's brain is greatly restrained.

The plot? A high-school daughter of a middle-class organization man scrambling to hold onto his social and financial position has skipped town in the company of Spanner, the "instant enemy." The youths set off on a crime spree which includes kidnapping the organization man's employer. The employer's family, having a huge amount to hide, would rather Archer find their loved one than the cops. Archer finds that Spanner's mother was being tailed by a different private eye who had connections to Spanner's parents and grandparents, who may or may not be related in obscure ways, after changing their names several times, to the rich family and some poorer relations of theirs from Texas. A high-school guidance counselor who has an unhealthy obsession with Spanner gets involved. There are car chases and some bad stuff involving trains. Archer gets beaten up a lot.

At a certain point, the plot becomes incomprehensible. But that's not unprecedented in Macdonald's œuvre, and it's also forgivable. The point is the pursuit. As Archer says,

I lived for nights like these, moving across the city's great broken body, making connections among its millions of cells. I had a crazy wish or fantasy that some day before I died, if I made all the right neural connections, the city would come all the way alive. Like the Bride of Frankenstein. (541)

Macdonald, Ross. The Instant Enemy. 1968. In Archer in Jeopardy. New York: Knopf, 1979. 437-632.