Drugs, blackmail, assumed identities, murder, Macdonald – the essential ingredients of one of the late, great Ross Macdonald’s best Lew Archer novels, re-released by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard books this past April. These are some of the things that just seem to naturally go together, kind of like peanut butter and jelly, or chocolate chip cookies and milk, and Macdonald books are just as addictive and delicious to fans of the crime noir genre. Ross Macdonald’s writing style is gritty and realistic, complex and nuanced - something you might not expect from crime noir - and reading his suspenseful books makes you think it’s no surprise that many crime writers try to copy his style. There are many imitators, but no one has come close to the perfection Macdonald reached when he was at the top of his form.
In The Instant Enemy, betrayals, corruption and murder span the generations of one particular family, the Krug/Hackett clan. Ex-cop and P.I. Lew Archer, one of the best-known and beloved characters of the crime noir genre, is hired by Keith and Bernice Sebastion to locate and bring back their teenaged daughter, Alexandria, aka Sandy, who has gone missing. The Sebastions believe she has run off with her current boyfriend, whom they consider to be a bad influence and a thug, David (Davy) Spanner. Lew worries that Sandy’s life might be in danger, because Davy - an orphan fostered by the Spanner family - is exhibiting psychopathic tendencies. A poem he finds in Sandy’s diary seems to add reality to his suspicions:
Listen, bird, you give me a pain
Davy’s biological father, Jasper Blevins (wedded to Laurel Krug), was found dead by Deputy Jack Fleischer by railroad tracks, decapitated by a passing train, when Davy was just a boy. No one was sure at the time, according to Fleischer, if the headless man’s body he’d been found beside was or wasn’t his father’s; but the effect of the experience left Davy speechless for some time afterwards. The Spanners raised him as best as they could, Lew finds through his investigations; but when Davy is sent to jail briefly for assaulting his guidance counselor, Henry Langston, they tried to distance themselves from him. Langston blames himself for stirring up Davy’s obsession to discover more about his father and what really happened to him all those years ago.
In my blood swinging about.
I think I better open a vein
And let you bloody well out.
Sandy’s father, Keith Sebastion, works for the wealthy Mr. Stephen Hackett, who made much of his fortune in the oil industry. Stephen’s mother is Mrs. Ruth Marburg, who took her last name after her re-marriage to Sidney Marburg. Mark Marburg, Sidney’s father, was mysteriously robbed and shot to death on the beach only days before Davy Spanner’s father’s peculiar death. The deaths appear to be too close together in time to not be related in some way, but how?
The fates of the two families, the Krugs and the Hacketts, seem destined to meet a tragic end. When Davy and Sandy conspire to kidnap Stephen Hackett, and Mrs. Marburg offers Lew $100,000 for the safe return of her son, he agrees to take the case - but returning Sandy to her parents still has priority for him, since they hired him first (for $250 for three days). Also, one of the Marburg/Hackett’s servants, whom Sandy hit in the head with a tire iron while kidnapping Mr. Hackett, gave her LSD the previous summer - and he and Hackett had had sex with her while she was under the influence.
I recommend all of Ross Macdonald’s novels highly, but The Instant Enemy is one of the very best, showcasing his talents when he was at the top of his form. Though the many ties and intermarriages that occur between families can be a bit convoluted and hard to follow at times, it adds to the complexity of the novel and the feeling that the sins of the sons often are closely tied to the sins of the fathers. Check out The Instant Enemy - you’ll become an instant fan of Macdonald’s, if you aren’t already one.