Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Review: The Imaginary Blonde by Ross Macdonald

“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.

13 comments:

  1. Great to see this long story get some respect Kelly, thanks for that, I really will have to dig it out again. I have never actually come across the issue of MANHUNT, but was this one originally published as an Archer story or was this a case where the character was remoulded for the paperback collection? I know he did do that for some of them (well, they predated Archer's creation in stories published as by Millar) - either way, great stuff - cheers.

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    1. That's a good question. The Kindle version I read could conceivably have been taken from a later Archer-fied text, though it credits the story as having first appeared in MANHUNT.

      I found some reviews of the Feb. 1953 issue of MANHUNT that call it an Archer story, so it looks like it might have been one from the start, though without owning a copy myself, I can't say for certain.

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    2. I'd love to own the original mag, wouldn't you? Thanks for all the great info.

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  2. I've actually read at least one of MacDonald's books, but that would have been about 40 years ago so I don't remember the title or what it was about. Actually I think I saw the book at my mother's house. I'm pretty sure it's not here in L.A. with me. Then again I could have sold it at a yard sale years ago.

    I like this genre.

    Lee
    A Faraway View

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    1. I like it too. My tastes run all over the place, but old crime fiction is something I always come back to.

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  3. Love to see a short story treated this seriously. Thanks!

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    1. Honestly, I wouldn't know how else to treat it. I can't wait to get the "real" book in the mail that I planned to review originally.

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  4. Love the cover on that issue of MANHUNT! I'll have to buy the Kindle edition of this story after reading your fine review.

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    1. Wouldn't it be nice to have a pile of those MANHUNTs?

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  5. Very nice review, Kelly. I read this story as GONE GIRL as part of my Ross Macdonald FFB although my favourite story in THE NAME IS ARCHER is the first one titled FIND THE WOMAN. I haven't read any of his novels yet but I liked his short stories a lot, so I know I'm in for a treat.

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    1. I'm anxious to read more of the short stories. I'm not normally a fan of shorts, but I like his style enough to overlook that.

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  6. These books are worth collecting just for the covers alone!

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  7. Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-black-money.html#.VLdYidKUc7U

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