Originally published in 1956, as the sixth novel in the Lew Archer crime series, The Barbarous Coast demonstrates exactly why Ross Macdonald’s name has survived when so many others have been forgotten. Punctuated by a sharp, dark wit, and twisting subtly through an untold number of well-plotted revelations, this novel shows why Macdonald was considered the natural successor to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. It also makes for a damned good read.
If you haven’t stepped inside this noir-ish world before then here’s a brief rundown of what to expect: hot-headed gangsters, scheming women, smart-talking detectives, guns, seedy motels, under-the-table business deals and more than one murder. It’s the world that Roman Polanski portrayed so realistically in Chinatown, or that James Ellroy still plunders to this day. It’s dark, dangerous, and the flip side of the American dream.
In many ways Macdonald’s Lew Archer is the archetypal private eye, quick tongued and always struggling to stay on the right side of the law. He also has a heart of gold, naturally, but after so many years of being dragged through the mud it’s tarnished a little. Actually, it’s tarnished a lot. The novel opens with Lew being called to The Channel Club, a private building at the southern end of Malibu beach. He encounters an angry young man called George Wall at the gate – the action kicking in almost before the end of the first page – and once he’s inside the building the club manager, Clarence Bassett, explains what the disturbance is all about.
One of the girls who used to work at the club, Hester Campbell, married Mr Wall in Canada; since then she has abandoned him and returned to California, and Wall’s worried that she might be in trouble. He’s been leaning on Bassett for information, but Bassett pleads ignorance, along with a bad case of nerves. Needless to say, Hester Campbell was strikingly beautiful. Needless to say, there’s a lot of dirt to be uncovered before the truth comes out.
If you’re already a fan of hardboiled detective fiction then this novel’s a dusky gem that’s well worth searching out, and kudos to the editors at Vintage Crime for uncovering it again. Its plot coils tightly around the secrets of the Malibu jet set, and by the time everything’s finally unravelled hardly anyone comes out clean. Macdonald also has a great turn of phrase, spinning out endless wisecracks mixed in with the occasional nugget of homegrown wisdom. You can’t help feeling that he could keep you entertained even without the colourful characters and breakneck plot. Luckily he doesn’t have to.
The most impressive thing about the Lew Archer novels, however, is how much they’ve influenced what’s come since. James Ellroy’s name has already been mentioned, but the likes of James Lee Burke and Robert Crais can also trace their roots back through Ross Macdonald’s work. The one tragedy is that Ross Macdonald wasn’t actually the author’s name at all – his real name was Kenneth Millar, and he used the pseudonym to avoid confusion with his writer wife, Margaret Millar. But perhaps it’s fitting that such a crime-writing great should be best known by his alias.