Thanks, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Books, for re-releasing Ross Macdonald’s excellent Lew Archer novels. They’ve been away from the shelves of bookstores for far too long and definitely deserve a place there. Lew Archer is one of the mystery genre’s most famous gumshoes, and I’m glad that another generation of suspense aficionados will be able to read the series featuring him and get the opportunity to find out why Ross Macdonald is considered by many to be one of the masters of the genre. In fact, he “served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America and was awarded their Grand Master Award as well as the Mystery Writers of Great Britain’s Gold Dagger Award,” as his brief bio inside the front cover states. The Doomsters offers proof as to why he was honored by these awards and titles with its superb plot of murder, madness, and greed hidden behind a thin veil of wealth and class.
Lew Archer is forty years old in this outing, but he’s still in fine form. When a young man knocks at his door at “first dawn” one morning, it’s the start of Lew’s entanglement in one of the strangest, saddest, most violent cases of his career. Carl Hallman, the son of a senator, wants Archer’s help to find out if his father really died accidently in his bathtub or if he was murdered. Hallman has escaped from a mental hospital with Tommy Rica, a heroin addict who Archer took under his wing three years ago and tried to get off the drug and turn his life around. Rica isn’t with him when Carl knocks on the door because they split up, in part to better evade capture, but Tommy gave Carl Archer’s name as someone who might be able to discover the truth behind the senator’s death.
Hesitant to take the case but intrigued by Carl’s story, Archer quotes Carl his usual fee: “I charge fifty a day and expenses.” Carl has no money on him but promises Lew he’ll pay eventually: “I’ll have plenty when I get what’s coming to me.” Whether or not there’s something to Carl’s theory that his father was murdered and that his brother, Jerry, had him committed to get control of the five million the family’s worth, Archer feels both a legal and moral obligation to get Carl back to the hospital, so he makes a bargain with him:
“Is it a deal then? You go back to the hospital, let me do the legwork?”Carl believes that he might have been responsible for both his father’s and mother’s deaths, though his mother’s was ruled a suicide by drowning. Supposedly she’d been high on barbituates, which the family doctor - Dr. Grantland - supplied, and she’d threatened to commit suicide several times before. The official line is that she walked into the sea one night, high on barbituates, finally succeeding in killing herself, though there are enough suspicious details about her death that Archer believes she might have also been murdered.
He gave me a reluctant yes. It was clear that he didn’t like the plan, but he was
too tired and confused to argue about it.
Not wanting to return to the hospital, Hallman overpowers Lew while he’s driving - not a good position to offer any defense - and steals Lew’s car. Still, Archer realizes that he might have done exactly the same thing under the circumstances and doesn’t want to press charges. He uses his own money and time to investigate the Hallman’s twisted lives, not knowing if he’ll ever get paid for his work. Archer is dogged when his interest is piqued, and the dark secrets he learns about the members of the Hallman family, Dr. Grantland, Carl’s wife, Mildred, and the sheriff - Sheriff Ostervelt - make him want to pursue the case to its end.
Carl’s mother, Alicia, had manic depressive tendencies and a theory that creatures called the “Doomsters,” had it in for her and her entire family. She felt the family was under “an ancestral curse” and that “it was a hideous world, a crime to bring children into it.” She recites a part of a poem about the Doomsters, and Mildred tells Archer that she’d said “it was written to an unborn child.” With a mother like that, is it any wonder Carl is also mentally unstable?
The Doomsters is like a character study of an entire dysfunctional family, doomed either by fate or by their own frailties, faults, and sins. Archer is like an observer looking in, but he gets caught up inexorably in the action and inevitable destruction of most of the Hallman family, like he’s being sucked into a vortex. Ross Macdonald shows himself at the top of his form with The Doomsters, a book I highly recommend to anyone who loves good mysteries with an emphasis on psychology, violence, and all things noir.