Thursday, August 21, 2014

Books of 1952: The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald


Rich Westwood at his blog Past Offences (classic crime reviews and news) has challenged readers to blog about a book or movie from 1952 during the month of August. This review of The Ivory Grin by Ross Macdonald is my submission for the 1952 book challenge.

Short summary from this review at armchairinterviews.com.:
Archer is hired by the archetypal mystery client who won’t tell him anything about herself, to find a young woman she won’t tell him much about either. Archer knows from the first moments that he is being conned, but he’s both a little short on cash and a romantic at heart, and he just can’t resist the challenge that goes with the $100.
The book starts with a scene in Lew Archer's office, introducing the client:
I found her waiting at the door of my office. She was a stocky woman of less than medium height, wearing a blue slack suit over a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue mink stole that failed to soften her outlines. Her face was squarish and deeply tanned, its boyish quality confirmed by dark hair cut short at the nape. She wasn't the type you'd expect to be up and about at eight thirty in the morning, unless she'd been up all night. As I unlocked the door she stood back and looked up at me with the air of an early bird surveying an outsize worm.
Archer finds her behavior very irritating very quickly but finds the $100 for two days' work that she is offering hard to pass up.
Her hard dry glance went over me almost tangibly and rested on my mouth. "You look all right. But you sound kind of Hollywood to me."
I was in no mood to swap compliments. The ragged edge on her voice, and her alternation of fair and bad manners bothered me. It was like talking to several persons at once, none of them quite complete.
As with Raymond Chandler, it is the style of writing that I enjoyed the most. The plot was very complex, and I got lost more than once. The characters are well-drawn, but I did get confused occasionally. I did not guess the resolution to the story, and I thought it was handled well. I don't expect to be able to figure out the plots, but I usually do try, without really meaning to.

The young woman who Lew Archer is seeking is a black woman, but light-skinned enough to have passed for white at times. It was good to read a vintage mystery which handles race relations evenhandedly. There are several black characters, their story is followed throughout the novel, and the characters are portrayed compassionately. This story also contrasts between those who have wealth (or want it badly) and those who are closer to poverty.

I recently read Hardboiled America by Geoffrey O'Brien. That book points out that...
With Lew Archer himself, Macdonald pulls off the neat trick of creating a character largely by negative means. Try to imagine him apart from the structure of the book and he becomes a cipher. We see through Archer's eyes, and react with him, but in the end he is little more than a window through which we perceive the real figures of interest — the people who Archer is investigating. He is the interviewer, the neutral voice that calmly elicits anguished testimony. On one level, he is a brilliant dramatic device, a device that works because of Macdonald's mastery of dialogue.
Possibly this is why I was uncomfortable with the story. I wasn't sure why Archer was continuing his investigation against all odds and with little obvious motivation, other than he felt he had to do the right thing for the people he was now involved with.

A reviewer at Goodreads starts his review of this book thusly:
This, the fourth novel in the Lew Archer series, is very good but not exceptional (at least not according to the standards of this exceptional series).
I hope this is true because I did like this book but was not overwhelmed by his skills, and I want to like his other books. I like the reviewer's comments so I recommend that you go read the whole review.

I have a problem when first reading the icons of mystery; my expectations are too high. I want to be bowled over with brilliance, and if that does not happen, I am disappointed. Often, when I come back to another book by the same author, I enjoy it much more because I now know what to expect.  This book is a fine book, but I was expecting more.

I think I will read The Moving Target next, which is the first book in the series and has been adapted into a film starring Paul Newman, titled Harper. I will re-watch that movie after reading the book.

The author's real name was Kenneth Millar and he was married to crime novelist Margaret Millar. They lived for a while in Santa Barbara, California, although both also lived in Canada when younger.

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Publisher: Bantam Books, 1984 (orig. pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, 1952)
Length:  249 pages
Format: paperback
Series:  Lew Archer novels, #4
Setting: Los Angeles, California and surrounding areas
Genre:  Mystery
Source: purchased my copy

34 comments:

  1. TracyK: It has been a generation since I read Archer. After reading your review I think it will be awhile before I return.

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    1. Bill, I will be interested in seeing how I like others in the series. I think the later novels had more psychological aspects.

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  2. I have this and most of the series on the untouched piles. Maybe I'll get to him next year. I'm kind of hoping I enjoy this one more than you, but I guess every series has its weaker books.

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    1. You will probably like it fine, Col. Everyone sees a novel differently, and sometimes it depends on mood. I hope to read one more before the end of the year at least, and others in 2015.

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  3. High expectations ...we all have them with some books ( Has Brinker in my children's reading) :(, but as they say " the harder they fall the higher they will bounce some other time. Movie/book comparison = love the concept. What I missed was any info about the cover? I'm curious if you found anything about this 'strange' illustration?

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    1. Nancy, you ask hard questions. I had this edition because I collect books with skulls or skeletons on the cover... but you are right, this one is strange. There is a skeleton that figures in the story and its grinning head is mentioned. But why a skull candle? I don't know, but if I ever find more about that, I will let you know.

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    2. I just am fascinated with book cover choices and it is sometimes a puzzle finding out the thoughts about the author/publisher's decision to use it!

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    3. Me too Nancy. Some covers are wonderful and fit the book, others are so blah. With motivation from you, I looked a bit more into the cover. I wasn't at home to do the research when I first replied.

      The artist is James Marsh, and this cover was on a 1984 printing of the Bantam paperback edition (art copyright 1983), and he did a lot of other Ross Macdonald covers and mystery covers... and cover art for many other genres. Also album cover art. He is still working.

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    4. Now that is interesting....I just love tidbits like that! Thanks for researching it! Just wanted to say I gave you another 'shout out' on my blogpost 'book beginnings Friday' Have a look!

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    5. Nancy, I am very interested in illustrators of book covers, especially those from earlier decades. Thus I am glad you asked about this cover, and I have discovered a new illustrator I had never heard of. I have a few books on illustrators of the early pulp fiction era, as many as I can afford.

      Thanks for the shout out at your blog, and glad you found Rose City Reader, a very interesting blogger.

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  4. I almost picked this one up for 1952 in fact! I think it is one of the better of the early books but if you want to really experience Ross Macdonald (and Lew Archer) at his peak, then you need to skip forward to THE CHILL or BLACK MONEY - they'll blow your socks off they are so good.

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    1. Sergio, I remember that you recommended this one or The Chill a while back. I am sure it is just me getting used to his style. I will be trying more books in the series for sure. And I do have a copy of The Chill.

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    2. You have to read THE CHILL TracyK - there must a civil ordinance about it some where ...

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    3. I will plan to read THE CHILL soon, Sergio. But Glen and I both want to re-watch Harper soon, so MOVING TARGET is first in line.

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  5. I've read a couple of his books, and while I liked them it didn't inspire me to read them all, but now I'm making a note of Sergio's suggestions. I think, like you, I had high expectations because he is so revered. Meanwhile, what a great choice for 1952, and that cover is perfect for you!

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    1. Moira, it is a wonderful cover, altho if I wanted to go overboard there are a couple other editions of this one with a skull on it. And a beautiful Pan books edition. (Not skull but still beautiful.)

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  6. I've enjoyed Macdonald's Lew Archer in the past, although I haven't read this particular title. All series are uneven though, so you should definitely try another one.

    FYI, I added your post to the FFB links I'm collecting for Patti Abbott this week:

    http://inreferencetomurder.typepad.com/my_weblog/2014/08/ffb-.html

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    1. BV, thanks for putting my link up there. I have checked out the post with all the links, including your interesting review.

      I will persevere on the Lew Archer books, not giving up yet.

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  7. Tracy - Thanks for your candid review. I know what you mean about high expectations when one's reading the work of a legendary author. I've always liked the Lew Archer stories, but that doesn't mean each of them is equally brilliant. I think you picked an interesting one though, and of course, how could you resist that cover! ;-)

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    1. Right, Margot, the story is interesting, and the cover is a winner. I think it is high expectations that are the problem as I read this book. I had the same problem with the first Len Deighton I read, and now he is one of my favorite writers. I am sure I will get to like Ross Macdonald, also and he was such an interesting person.

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  8. Never been a big fan of the hard boiled detectives, but I would have read this one for the cover alone.

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    1. Ryan, I though I had read a lot of hard-boiled detective novels when I was younger, but now I find I don't like them as well, so either my memory is wrong or my tastes have changed. Although I was drinking in books then, and maybe read them from a different perspective.

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  9. "I have a problem when first reading the icons of mystery; my expectations are too high. I want to be bowled over with brilliance, and if that does not happen, I am disappointed. Often, when I come back to another book by the same author, I enjoy it much more because I now know what to expect."

    Very true, Tracy, I too have experienced this. Sometimes these expectations put us off books and authors.

    I have read two of Ross Macdonald till date: The Galton Case, and The Blue Hammer. They were quite good. Now I am intrigued by the books that Sergio has mentioned.

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    1. Neer, it is good hearing that I am not alone with this problem. I have heard that The Galton Case is very good. I will look for both of those. Thanks for the recommendations.

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  10. THE GALTON CASE is my very favorite Lew Archer book, Tracy. Have you read that one?
    I've actually read most of the Lew Archers and enjoyed them all to varying degrees. But damn if I can remember any of them. Time to reread.

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    1. Yvette, If I read THE GALTON CASE, I don't remember it. I don't have a copy, I will look for one at my favorite book sale which is coming up soon.

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  11. I started this book but ended it setting it down. It's like so much have been said about his work that when you get to it you're like: that's it?? that's all? I was underwhelmed. His wife work tho is very good (well, from the one I read). I've heard it said that she was the better writer. I have more of her books to read.

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    1. Keishon, I am discovering as I read more private eye fiction that it is not my favorite sub-genre of mystery fiction. Contemporary books and older ones. Of course, it depends on the writer and their style, but we can't all like everything. I do like to read the books from this time to get a feel for what life was like then, even though some of it (racism, treatment of women) was distasteful. So I persevere.

      I have read a book or two by Margaret Millar many years ago, and I do want to try some now. I only have one that I own: Wall of Eyes set in San Francisco, I think.

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    2. Protagonists as private eye(s) and journalists and lawyers are my least favorite. Although Spencer is the exception (by Robert B. Parker).

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    3. Keishon, that is interesting about Spencer. I only tried one of those and did not like it that well. But I have considered going back to that series; so many people like it.

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    4. I enjoyed "Mortal Stakes" a lot and it started from there. Since reading only three books in that series I've found the series to have *some* substance to them and the author deals with a lot of issues (racism, terrorism,etc) His books also have some philosophical moments albeit from Susan Silverman. So Spencer can sometimes be more that just a wisecracking PI from Boston.

      Also, I didn't consider Dennis Lehane's PI series. I loved those books too but I think he's finished with that series and is focusing on standalone novels or historical epics at the moment. Not sure if you read Lehane or not. I've seen a lot of readers in the community not like him at all.

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    5. Mortal Stakes seems like a good place to start, Keishon. I will add his books to my list when I go to the book sale ... if I am lucky they will have some of the earlier ones.

      Re Dennis Lehane, I liked the first in his PI series, but could not finish the 2nd one. Way too dark, tense and scary for me. But I am considering reading the third one, and then Gone, Baby, Gone. I have seen the movie adaptation of that one. So I know what to expect.

      I have some PI series that I read now and then, but I still don't care for PIs as the protagonist. Pronzini's Nameless PI is one, I have read about half of those.

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  12. Tracy, I have read a couple of Ross Macdonald's novels and while I cannot form an opinion of his full-length work based on just those two books, I liked his short stories more. I'm not a clever reader and I get easily confused with too many characters and sub-plots. As a result, I have to frequently double back.

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    1. Prashant, I am glad to hear you say that too many characters and sub-plots are confusing to you, because I know you are a very clever man. Now I don't feel so bad at sometimes feeling defeated by that type of book. I am not as fond of short stories as you are, but I will have to try some of his.

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