Fifty A Day And Expenses
At the outset of "The Way Some People Die" (1951), private detective Lew Archer is invited to a run-down old rooming house in Santa Monica, California where a widow in her fifties, Mrs. Lawrence, wants help in locating her apparently missing daughter. The daughter, Gallie, 24, is a registered nurse who, according to her mother, has always radiated sexuality and been irresistible to men. Mrs. Lawrence had last heard from Gallie three months earlier, in a Christmas card mailed from San Francisco.
Archer is skeptical about the case. After all, a beautiful 24 year old woman has her own life to live. He advises Mrs. Lawrence to call the police missing persons bureau if she is worried but that he would reluctantly spend a day on the case for "fifty a day and expenses." Mrs. Lawrence unhesitatingly forks over the money.
So begins what proves to be a "violent and twisted journey" through the criminal world of southern California. Before the story is over, five men will be dead, victims of greed and lust. The tangled story centers on a heroin gang which is shown at all its seedy levels from its leaders to its goons. The story also shows the victims of heroin, which Archer finds to be the worst and most cruel of all addictions.
The novel is replete with violence, greed, double-crossing, and shifts of identities. The head of the drug gang is a butter-milk drinking thug named Dowson. Some of the shifty low-life participants have appropriate nicknames such as Mosquito.
Things are not what they seem in the story as Archer takes the reader through the painstakingly described landscape of Southern California. It is a world of pinball hustles, failed actors, dingy bars and piano players, marinas, hospitals, lonely rooms and lonely people, tawdry wrestling exhibitions, heroin addicts and pushers, and more. The plot eventually shakes itself out. But the main interest of the story lies in its characters, descriptions of place, and Lew Archer's terse but sharp reflections on what he sees.
"The Way Some People Die" is the third of what eventually became a seventeen novel series of crime novels by Ross Macdonald (1915 -- 1983) with the enigmatic Lew Archer as the central character. Ross Macdonald was the pseudonym for Kenneth Millar. Many readers have come to regard the Lew Archer novels as classics in crime fiction, and the Library of America has published twelve of the novels in three volumes in its prestigious series of American literary classics. This is the first novel included in the LOA compilation of four Lew Archer novels from the 1950s. According to the LOA, Macdonald said of this novel in comparison to its predecessors that it was "a more human book than either of the others, more original, not so slick, and a truer picture of our very messed-up society."
This is a dark story full of violence and corruption which reflects upon the loneliness and greed that the author finds not far below the surface in American life. I was moved by the book. I am looking forward to reading the remaining three novels in the 1950s LOA compilation.