Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Short Story Wednesday: STRANGERS IN TOWN, Ross Macdonald

From the archives

Strangers in Town: Three Newly-discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald, edited by Tom Nolan
(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.

 George Kelley


Steve Lewis 

Casual Debris


Margot Kinberg said...

I do like Macdonald's writing, Patti, including his short stories. Not all authors do well with both novels and short stories, but he does.

Jeff Meyerson said...

Of course I've read this, and the later collection with all the stories. Good stuff.

I read Tod Goldberg's OTHER RESORT CITIES, an earlier collection of stories. (I will be sending it to you with the other three books I have, as soon as I can force myself to go to the PO). Perhaps I liked the later collection better, but he is worth reading.

I finally got my replacement copy of the new Ed Hoch collection of Captain Leopold stories from Crippen & Landru, but in checking I found there was also a 1985 collection of Leopold stories, LEOPOLD's WAY, edited by Mike Nevins & Marty Greenberg. My library had an ebook copy, and since these were much earlier stories I decided to read it first. It starts with the first Leopold story, "Circus"," written in 1962. These are police procedurals and not the sometimes zany plots of impossible crimes of his other series. He had a wide range.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree, Margot.
No hurry, Jeff. I have a stack to keep me busy. So nice of you to think of me though.

Casual Debris said...

Good morning,

I couldn't get into Macdonald when I was young, but I was probably too young when I tried. I'll try again now that I am (slightly) more mature.

I actually have two posts ready this time (to make up for nothing last week).

Enemy Mine:



Todd Mason said...

One of the books touched in our series so far that I read not too long after it came out, but damned if I remember a single thing about any of the stories, nor much about the introduction. Of course, I wasn't a preteen by then, when everything was a New World...

Todd Mason said...

Jeff--not quite...Leopold made his first published appearance in 1957, in another series-story by the young Hoch.

From the FictionMags Index:

Leopold, Captain
Edward D. Hoch:
Jealous Lover, (ss) Crime and Justice Detective Story Magazine #4, March 1957 [Al Darlan (aka Al Diamond)]
Circus, (ss) The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK) November 1961, as by Stephen Dentinger
The Demon at Noon, (ss) The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK) January 1962, as by Stephen Dentinger
Death in the Harbor, (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine December 1962
A Place for Bleeding, (ss) The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK) March 1963, as by Stephen Dentinger
Reunion, (nv) The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK) February 1964, as by Stephen Dentinger
The Freech Case, (nv) The Saint Mystery Magazine May 1964, as by Stephen Dentinger
The Clever Mr. Carton, (ss) Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine January 1965
The People of the Peacock, (nv) The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK) March 1965, as by Stephen Dentinger
A Question of Punishment, (ss) The Saint Mystery Magazine (UK) August 1965, as by Stephen Dentinger
The House by the Ferris, (ss) The Saint Magazine May 1966
The Oblong Room, (ss) The Saint Magazine July 1967

I break off at my long-term favorite, and probably introduction, to the series, "The Oblong Room"...

TracyK said...

Patti, sorry to be so late in commenting. Deb's review, which I read last night, had me wanting a copy of this and especially with her notes about the introduction by Tom Nolan.

However, being late, because of going to the book sale today, does give me the opportunity to share that I found a hardcover copy of this book at the book sale (at a pretty high price for a book sale, but based on the prices at Amazon, definitely worth it). If I had not seen this review I probably would have passed on it.

T Kent Morgan said...

Recently started reading an Archer collection, but put it aside when I had to get to several library books. Have most of his work in the massive to-be-read but probably never will piles in my basement. Finally finished cataloguing the books I bought last Friday at our Children's Hospital Book Market. Nineteen were keepers including three UK crime novels and 12 will hopefully be sold to a local dealer. Early this morning I received a message that our Grace Hospital had a large sale starting at 10 a.m. With it being the first sale since COVID and no advance notice, I thought it would be worthwhile getting out there ASAP. All books were priced at $2.00. Only was able to spend $16. There were three very long sections filled with both hardcovers and paperback mysteries, but only found three including the second in the Slough House series. Got the first one at the CHBM so will have to see if it lives up to all the raves. More mysteries were in still in boxes, but I'm not going back.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Funny that the book sales here (all library) never have anything very interesting. I am going to a library tomorrow where my friend tells me that some huge stash of interesting and rare DVds just turned up. I am getting concerned as the streaming services divest themselves of a lot of movies. At one point, we thought every movie would be available and that turned out to be very wrong. I loved the TV series of Slough House but haven't read the books. The third season will be airing soon.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Deb was a great reviewer. Insightful, thorough, interesting. She put the rest of us to shame. Funny that there it was. Your eyes would have not seen it before probably.
I did not know there was a Saint Magazine, Todd.