From the archives
Strangers in Town: Three Newly-discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald, edited by Tom Nolan
(Review by Deb)
(Review by Deb)
Containing three short stories (only one of which was published in Macdonald’s lifetime), written in 1945, 1950, and 1955 respectively, Strangers in Town displays some of the earliest themes, characterizations, plot twists, and motifs that are found in Macdonald’s longer works. In each one of these stories, we see elements emerge that will be explored more fully in future mysteries, including the development of Macdonald’s series private investigator, Lew Archer.
The first story, Death by Water, was published in 1945 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine under Macdonald’s real name, Kenneth Millar. Written while Millar was serving on a naval vessel in the Pacific Theater of WWII, the story features Lew Archer prototype, p.i. Joe Rogers, who is investigating the drowning death of a wealthy man. Was it just an unfortunate accident or was he deliberately killed? And, if the latter, who is the killer? The man’s younger, wheelchair-bound wife has only a few months to live herself. The man’s stepson is on a navy ship (much like Millar himself when he wrote this story) and therefore unable to have committed the crime. How about the dead man’s brother, who struggles to live on a limited income? And where was the wife’s personal nurse when the death occurred? Millar manages to pack a lot of suspects and motives into a few pages, but what I found most interesting about the story was the reference to ALS (aka, Lou Gehrig’s disease) just a few years after Gehrig himself succumbed to the condition.
Lew Archer appears in the next story, 1950’s Strangers in Town, where he is hired by a woman to prove that her son did not kill a pretty, secretive young woman who was renting a room in her house. Archer has to travel to a dusty town in the California desert to investigate this one. As in much of Macdonald’s longer fiction, the small California community in which the story is set is a character in itself. What I liked most about the story was the sympathetic and dignified treatment of African-American and Hispanic characters (the victim and the alleged killer are both black; the attorney defending the young man is Mexican-American)—they are depicted neither as caricatures nor noble stoics, but as fully-realized characters with the standard human mix of decency, faults, and failings.
The final story in the collection is 1955’s The Angry Man which features several frequent Macdonald themes: The mentally-ill and the often callous treatment they receive from law enforcement and society as a whole; wealthy but dysfunctional families; the lengths to which people who have no money will go in order to get it; and the juxtaposition of a character’s surface persona with their inward self. You can also see Macdonald working on the technical problem of how to have a first-person, non-omniscient narrator receive and communicate information without the story devolving into one long piece of exposition (I think Macdonald handles this type of narrative extremely well in both his short and long fiction). Neither this story nor Strangers in Town was published in Macdonald’s lifetime. He decision not to publish these works was not because they did not measure up to his standards but for quite the opposite reason: He liked what he had written so much that he wanted to expand upon it and develop the material into longer works.
As entertaining as these short stories are, I found the most interesting thing about the book to be its long, informative introduction written by Tom Nolan which quotes extensively from letters Millar/Macdonald wrote to his wife (fellow novelist, Margaret Millar—herself an FFB honoree some time ago) while he was serving in the Navy. During long, occasionally dangerous, deployments, Millar was able to read extensively from the ship’s library and continue to write fiction and develop his ideas for writing first-person murder-mysteries narrated by the hard-boiled but moral private investigator who ultimately became Lew Archer.