“The Imaginary Blonde” is actually a short story, though you can buy it through Amazon as a 99-cent e-book. Whether or not you think that’s a good price for one story may depend on how much you like Ross Macdonald. As it turns out, I’m pretty glad to discover I added it to my Kindle some time ago, as the book I ordered for this week’s Friday’s Forgotten Books review didn’t arrive in time. While this story may have been a last-minute read, it was a worthwhile one, and a good introduction to Macdonald, or, if you’re already familiar with him, a nice snack-sized treat.
|"The Imaginary Blonde" first appeared in Manhunt in 1953.|
When “The Imaginary Blonde” was first published in the February issue of Manhunt, Macdonald had less than a handful of novels under his belt. Top billing in the issue went to Mickey Spillane, while Richard Deming, Jonathan Craig, Fletcher Flora, and others joined Macdonald (still credited then as John Ross Macdonald) in smaller type. Individual copies of Manhunt can be pricey, thanks to the fact that some of the stories in them weren’t reprinted. If you’re dying for a paper copy of “The Imaginary Blonde,” you can save a few bucks by finding it in the collection My Name Is Archer, released two years later, and pretty common in paperback. The story appears there under the title “Gone Girl.”
The action starts immediately, and it’s clearly hard-boiled territory (“I was tooling home from the Mexican border in a light blue convertible and a dark blue mood.”) It was a nice surprise a few pages in to discover that this was indeed a Lew Archer story, not to mention a solid one. After Archer loses the car he’s tailing, he ends up sleeping in a border town motel, only to be awakened by a screaming woman outside the room next door, her hand covered in blood from what turns out to be a pool of it in the bathroom. With no actual body, the woman playing dumb, and her father (the motel owner) doing some obvious covering up, Archer has his work cut for him. He follows the trail of lies from lingerie shops to be-bop clubs to ultimately find resolution—and the body.
What’s niftiest about the story is how complete it is. Unlike some shorts, it’s not a fragment, but a complete detective story in miniature. It could easily have been expanded into a novel by further exploring some of the characters and locations, but it doesn’t seem like much is missing here, with one exception: the problem of the imaginary, or missing, blonde of the title is resolved rather quickly, and in a novel, it probably would have remained a plot point for much longer. Luckily, there’s still plenty more story to unravel, and it does so with plenty of good, old-school crime action: car chases, fist fights, bloody noses, and guns.
Archer is cool as they come, whether flirting shamelessly with the lingerie store clerk, or giving as good as he gets with the cool-cat jazz piano player who only talks in rhyme. After a tedious string of the musician’s sing-song jabber is going nowhere, Archer fires back: “Where did she lam, Sam, or don’t you give a damn?” Macdonald’s writing is equally deft when it comes to setting the scene with only a few words, for example: “The room and the furniture seemed to have been built for a race of giants.”
The only weak spot in the story is the fact that clues are sometimes easily come by, which may be the author’s way of condensing the mystery into a short story. While thought to be knocked out, Archer overhears some thugs talking, and it's the sort of conversation where every detail is revealed, along with the names of all the speakers. Earlier, a woman’s slip found at the crime scene is monogrammed not only with an initial, but with a full first name, if you can believe any woman ever owned lingerie with “Fern” emblazoned on the chest. Sure is handy for cracking cases, though.
Archer’s at his best when he’s doing the actual work, rather than having the clues delivered in tidy wrapped packages. He does get to do some of it in “The Imaginary Blonde,” but if you’re craving more? It’s time to break out one of the novels.
It’s Ross Macdonald week at Friday’s Forgotten Books. Visit Patti Abbott’s blog to find links to all the reviews.