Friday, November 8, 2013

Forgotten Books: BLUE CITY by Kenneth Millar (Ross MacDonald)

I read all the Lew Archer books a coon’s age ago, so I’ve probably forgotten how good they are. What I do remember is that somewhere in the middle Macdonald fell into a Sins of the Fathers formula and the plots got a little predictable.

Not so with Blue City. This one is fresh and exuberant, and a hell of a lot of fun. First published in 1946, Blue City was (I think) his third novel, and two years before the first Archer book. There’s a lot of proto-Archer style and attitude on display, and plenty of amazing prose. Archer himself made his debut that same year in EQMM.

Our hero is twenty-two year old John Weather, returning to his home town after five years of roaming. He’s been so out of touch that he's surprised to learn his father - the town’s number one citizen - has been dead two years. And he soon discovers he was out of touch before he left, never realizing his father built a corrupt political machine that's still going full steam.

Early on, the book reminded me of Red Harvest. John’s father sounds like Hammett’s Elihu Willson, who brought in strikebreakers to maintain control, then lost it as they refused to go away. But the story quickly moves in other directions, as John peels away layers of deception to discover who really controls the town and fights to take it away from them.

He finds it tough going. “I was beginning to feel a little bit like a salesman of something nobody wanted,” he says. “Or a billiard ball looking for a carom and finding nothing to hit. But I still felt like a special kind of billiard ball, not subject to the forces of gravity and friction.”

MacDonald’s prose really shines when it comes to descriptions. Here’s our first look at the baddest bad guy: “Kerch was sitting at the desk counting money. His small, white hands moved quickly among the sheafs of green bills, like little naked birds in a garden of good things to eat. His wrists bulged out big above his hands, as if someone had bound his hands and blown air into the rest of him.”

Of another guy, our narrator says, “His face had thinned and dried, so that his smile was like carefully folded paper.”  And of his step-mother, “Her bright red hair stood above her pale face and neck like a curled, red flower on a stalk the sun had missed.”

Makes me want to trot out Millar/Macdonald’s first book, I Die Slowly (aka The Dark Tunnel) and take it for another spin.

More Macdonald (and other) Forgotten Books at pattinase.


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great review and great choice - I remember thinking that this was almost like a modern-day version of HAMLET. I remember also quite liking the 80s movie version starring Judd Nelson, though mostly I recall the Ry Cooder soundtrack!

Evan Lewis said...

Movie? Didn't know about that. Was it set in the '40s or the '80s?

stephen Mertz said...

They updated it to the 80s. Some hate it. I think it's ok. Great Ry soundtrack.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks Steve. I like old Ry. I'll email you his version of Billy the Kid.

Rick Robinson said...

Though most people seem to think the early books are inferior, there are several I prefer to the big favorites or later ones. The writing seemed fresher even if it was derisive of Chandler.

Kelly Robinson said...

I'm nuts for those Dell mapbacks. The pictures alone made me drool.