Recent reread: The Instant Enemy

I've mentioned elsewhere that I like mystery fiction, and that I like a detective without a lot of personal issues intended to make him seem like a real character. You know, a love of jazz, alcoholism, an estranged adolescent daughter, that kind of thing.

So I like Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. Archer seems to work in order to earn money. At least he shows some semblance of pleasure when it seems he might get some. But who knows what he spends it on--he seems to live in his office. He may occasionally get sexually aroused, but doesn't really have a lot of tastes, hobbies, pet peeves, or friends who can't help him. He's a pure private eye. His reward is in seeing the truth. His only pleasure is solving crossword puzzles made out of human lives.

The Instant Enemy (1968) is a good example of Macdonald's high style, which is that of Greek tragedy told backward. In classical Greek tragedy, the audience knows the family history and its ancient crimes, and waits to see how the characters on stage will learn about it, what their reactions will be, and what effects those reactions will have. In Macdonald, Archer is hired to investigate a crime, often a fairly mundane one. As he digs into the motivations of the acts, he gradually uncovers a long and brutal history that connects a huge number of seemingly unrelated characters. Sins are visited on children and grandchildren, and no one ever seems to escape.  And, of course, the investigation of the crime then sets off a series of other crimes, as suspended or forgotten stresses are released.

A paradigmatic Macdonald novel might be where Archer is hired by a man to find out why his daughter was arrested for jaywalking on her way to school, only to finally reveal that the people who built the intersection murdered someone and buried him under the crosswalk, that the daughter is actually the illegitimate daughter of the cop who arrests her, and that her teacher is her father's deranged ex-wife, the one who murdered the crossing guard's son in a kidnapping gone wrong, but not before someone is beaten to death in the squash court and the driver of the car that beeped at the girl in the crosswalk drives off a cliff after realizing the true meaning of those events at recess, thirty years before.

The Instant Enemy is a fast and entertaining example of the genre.  I lay down on my couch and read it until I was done, fairly late at night. And I'd read it before! The pace is of a sports car with great steering and tight suspension tearing down a twisty mountain road in the dark. In a rainstorm.  If he ever seems to let up, it's just to lull you into a false sense of security. There's a lot to learn from here.

Each Macdonald book is really a pocket family saga, with all its crimes and illusions,  uncovered by the obsessed archeologist, Archer.  Each is about the image Archer has in The Instant Enemy after he gets knocked out by a bad former cop: "Huge turning wheels, like the interlocking wheels of eternity and necessity". But instead of making you wade through hundreds of pages, he gives it to you in compressed form. In a world of morbidly obese literature, it's quite a relief.