Book Review – The Goodbye Look (Ross Macdonald)

The Goodbye Look

Ross Macdonald


“There was a bald spot on the crown of his head, with a little hair brushed over to mask his vulnerability. The beatings that people took from their children, I was thinking, were the hardest to endure and the hardest to escape.”

One of the later entries into the Ross Macdonald’s series of novels to feature the private detective Lew Archer, The Goodbye Look is a complex crime novel looking into the lives of two American families, bound together by secrecy, crime and murder.

As is customary with the Archer series, it’s a very detailed story, and to sum up the whole thing would take a small essay in itself but, in as succinct a way as possible – the story begins with Archer being called to the offices of a lawyer, John Truttwell, to look into the theft of a family heirloom from his clients, Larry and Irene Chalmers. Mrs Chalmers suspects their troubled son, Nick, as being responsible for the theft. Archer meets Nick’s fiancée, Betty Truttwell (John Truttwell’s daughter) who points him in the direction of an older woman, Mrs Trask, with whom Nick has been spending much of his time. As his investigations deepen, Archer crosses paths with another detective called Harrow, and eventually with Nick himself. After later discovering Harrow dead with a gun which Nick claims to be his own, Archer traces the gun back to a retired banker called Rawlinson – a man who reveals himself to be the mother of Mrs Trask, the woman with whom Nick was involved. Archer’s investigations into the Harrow murder lead him back to an unsolved killing from 1954 of a man who was involved in the embezzlement of funds from Rawlinson’s bank. From there, Archer untangles a deeper web of connections, murders and crimes that bind the two families together, exposing the truth behind a kidnapping, a murder, a robbery and the events behind an earlier, seemingly unconnected killing of John Truttwell’s own wife.

It’s a winding and complicated plot (to the point where I was actively taking notes down as I went along to make sure I kept up with it all), but no threads are left dangling and the pieces come together nicely, which is a testament to Macdonald’s strengths at plotting. The characters are complex and carefully drawn, and the story itself unfolds at a fast pace. The climax and the final revelations surrounding the central characters is a satisfying culmination to a tightly-wound plot which manages to remain believable and convincing, which is not always an easy task for such a complex mystery.  Whilst still a hardboiled writer at heart, rather than taking Raymond Chandler’s approach of focusing on strong individual scenes over creating a tighter overall story, Macdonald’s specialty tends to be in developing tightly-wound plots, often revolving around family secrets and long forgotten crimes. ‘Sins of the father’ themes, or variants thereof, often present themselves, with Lew Archer acting almost as an angel of justice as he tries to uncover the truth behind long-buried secrets and hidden family truths.

“‘I have a secret passion for mercy’ I said, ‘but justice is what keeps happening to people.’ ”

In my previous review of his earlier Archer novels, The Chill, I described Macdonald’s work as being a much ‘maturer’ take on the hardboiled detective genre, and that approach is definitely maintained in The Goodbye Look. Whilst he still retains a hardboiled approach, Macdonald adds his own unique spin onto the material. Rather than relying solely on more classic detective archetypes such as bootleggers, gangsters and blackmailers (not that those aren’t present), he focuses on the conflict between families and people closest to each other. The kidnapping element to the plot in particular adds a layer of seriousness and tragedy not always touched upon by other writers of the time, but the seriousness of Macdonald’s works and the more ‘personal’ subject of his plots are well-suited for such a tricky subject matter.  Whilst some of the themes and plot devices are used across many of Macdonald’s works, The Goodbye Look (along with his earlier work Black Money) sees them being put to best use and with maximum effect.

My brief dip into Sidney Harrow’s life had left a stain on my nerves. Perhaps it reminded me too strongly of my own life. Depression threatened me like a sour smoke drifting in behind my eyes.”

At the centre of it all lies Lew Archer.  Like many of the classic hardboiled detectives, only limited information is provided about their earlier life and background. This time around, however, we get a surprisingly more forthcoming Archer, revealing his thoughts more freely than before, and portraying himself as a much more ‘human’ character than many other hardboiled detectives. He’s not a man made of stone – by this point in the series, he is knowingly beginning to feel not only the physical strains that come with age, but the psychological strains that come with the life of being a private detective. The work he does affects him on more of an emotional level than his more rough-and-tough hardboiled predecessors, but despite it all he remains devoted to justice and picking up the pieces of broken lives, seemingly developing a genuine affinity for some of the perceived victims of the crimes that he is uncovering.

For just about the first time in my life I knew how it must feel to get old. My body was demanding special privileges and not offering much in return.”

Reading this reminds me somewhat of Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of an older Philip Marlowe in 1975’s film adaption of Farewell, My Lovely – an older, more world-weary detective who has seen it all and is increasingly less keen to go through it all again. On that note, it’s somewhat regrettable that only a few of Macdonald’s works made their way to the big screen, but then the subject matter at hand is ultimately something better suited to the written word, allowing for a deeper analysis of the relationships between people and families which interested Macdonald so much, without having to make the compromises that might have been necessary in order to achieve cinematic success.

Overall it’s a complex work, one which is likely to benefit from multiple readings, but at its heart it is a well-constructed and entertaining mystery novel. Macdonald wrote around eighteen Lew Archer novels in all, and it’s an impressive testament to his abilities that even towards the end of the series, he was able to put together such an impressive work.

Much like many PI series’, you can dip in and out of Macdonald’s works with relative ease (which is handy given that the series is spread out over several different imprints and publishing houses). For any newcomers to the series, The Goodbye Look is a fine place to start. For those already familiar with Macdonald, it’s another solid entry into the series and probably ranks as my favourite out of the half-dozen I’ve read so far. Next up – The Underground Man




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