Book Review: “Find a Victim” by Ross Macdonald

findavictim2I first read Ross Macdonald in the late 80s or early 90s, after reading a lot of Hammett and Chandler. It was a natural progression. For as many have pointed out, Macdonald perfected the hardboiled detective  genre that Hammett invented and Chandler made literarily necessary.

The protagonist of Ross Macdonald’s Southern California Noir work is private detective Lew Archer. Like Mike Hammer, Archer is the product of the Pacific Theatre of World War II, tough and cynical. Like Sam Spade, once he takes a case he will follow it no matter where it leads him and no matter what it costs him, financially, spiritually, physically.

While I had read a number of Lew Archer novels, “Find a Victim” was not one of them. Generally  considered one of his “lesser” works I chose to read it precisely for that reason. To truly judge an artist we need to know not merely their greatest and most notable works, but also their lesser ones as well.

I was helped in my decision to choose “Find a Victim” by a review published by Ron Scheer at his blog Buddies in the Saddle awhile back (Buddies in the Saddle, November 9, 2012), which I encourage you to check out as well because I have always wished that I could review books in the way that Ron regularly does on his blog.

A lover of American private detective fiction, I have never been comfortable with the British-cozy/ “Murder She Wrote” kind of mystery. Murder and violence by definition change those who come into contact with them. Writers like Chandler and Macdonald understood that. Their detectives and the people who inhabit their books are people tainted by sin and violence. Chandler and Macdonald raise “genre fiction” to high, literary art because they understand ultimately that we are all ultimately tainted by sin and violence.

The root of the American Detective story is in the American Western. It is why Elmore Leonard could so seamlessly move from writing Westerns to writing Crime novels. The pattern is the same.

“Find a Victim” opens with Lew Archer driving into a desert town and finding a dying man along the road. Soon he is neck deep in the sins of a the the small desert city. It is the plot of a hundred westerns, but in Macdonald’s hands it becomes art.

“Find a Victim” is not Macdonald’s finest work, but it is a great read.

Here are some great lines.


He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me. He rose on his knees in the ditch. His eyes were black holes in his yellow face, his mouth a bright smear of red like a clown’s painted grin. The arm he raised over-balanced him. He fell forward on his face again.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was a big old-fashioned restaurant with a crowded bar along one side and wooden booths one the other, painted black and orange. Unlit paper lanterns hung dismally from the smoky pressed-iron ceiling. A languid ceiling fan stirred and atmosphere compounded of rancid grease and soy sauce, whisky-laden breath and human sweat. The people were from the lower echelons of valley life: oilfield roughnecks and their women, cowpokes in high-heeled riding boots, an old rum-dum sitting in a booth in alcoholic isolation, waiting for dreams to begin.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was washing down the last leathery shreds of the steak with beer when a girl sauntered in from the street. Her head was small and beautifully molded, capped with short black hair like glistening satin. She had flat black eyes, a mouth as sullen as si. Her mink-dyed rabbit coat hung open, and her hips swayed as she walked to an obvious rhythm.
Every man at the bar, including the Filipino bartender, was simultaneously aware of her.

* * * * * * * * * *

There was music in the house behind the monkey-puzzle tree: a nervous dialogue of piano and strings. Pity me, the piano said. We pity you, said the strings. The music was switched off when I knocked on the door. Mrs. Kerrigan opened it on a chain.

* * * * * * * * * *

Shutting the mirrored door, I saw my face through the tiny snowstorm of toothpaste specks on the glass. My face was pale, my eyes narrow and hard with with curiosity. I thought of the palm rat running in his shadow on the sidewalk. He lived by his wits in darkness, gnawed human leavings, listened behind walls for the sounds of danger. I liked the palm rat better when I thought of him, and myself less.

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