Couched in the language of old Hollywood noir, this novel perfectly captures the mean streets of the Forties and Fifties, personified by hard-boiled detective Lew Archer, ex-cop, current P.I. on the trail of a missing young woman, wise-cracking his way from L.A. to Santa Monica to interview the distraught mother of the missing girl: “Parking spaces in downtown Hollywood were as scarce as the cardinal virtues.”
Middle-aged Mrs. Samuel Lawrence informs Archer that her daughter has been missing since just before Christmas. Handing the detective the Christmas card Galatea so thoughtfully sent, the mother is worried enough to engage his services. Galley is indeed a rare beauty, irresistible to men, a combination of a stunning body and fresh innocence.
After caring exclusively for a gut-shot small-time hood, Galley quit her nursing job in L.A. to run off with Joe Tarantine, a gangster in the wounded man’s employ. Starting the investigation in the most likely place, with Tarantine’s brother, Mario, Lew finds the man in the hospital after a severe beating that has left him almost unrecognizable.
Lew sticks his nose to the ground, putting together fragments of information in order to form a more complete picture of Galley’s recent activities and likely whereabouts. Before he can take action, Archer is shanghaied to a fortified hilltop home between Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica by a local drug dealer and former boxer, Dowser. Dowser not too subtly informs Archer that it would be to their mutual benefit to locate the young lady and, with her, the also-missing Tarantine.
With every intention of leaving Dowser’s compound in one piece, Archer agrees, afterwards tracking Tarantine to a bar in Palm Springs. The bar yields even more eccentric characters in a constantly changing case, some unsavory, others with questionable motives. Unexpectedly, Lew finds Galley in a rented house outside of Palm Springs but is knocked unconscious before her can question her, rescued from the roadside by a middle-aged newlywed.
As the bodies pile up, so does Archer’s confusion, but he remains undeterred by the situation, relying on his well-honed instinct for deviant behavior and the venal intentions of others. Still, the bodies accumulate at an alarming rate, a handsome part-time actor found dead in his apartment, a newlywed husband on the lam, a boat piled on the rocks, fast-talking women, everybody with a handout or hidden agenda.
Archer mirrors the stark black-and-white crime genre in its prime: tough guys and hoods, beautiful dames, pushy cops and nasty characters you wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley - “His face and body had an evil swollen look as if they had grown stout on rotten meat.” This is a man with a heart, willing to scrape a junkie off the streets but unwilling to be anybody’s sucker. In Archer’s L.A., good and evil are easy to recognize, women wear gloves, and both good and bad guys sport hats.