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The Barbarous Coast (1956)

by Ross MacDonald

Series: Lew Archer (6)

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362856,530 (3.87)7
In The barbarous coast, Lew Archer's pursuit of a girl who jackknifed too suddenly from high diving to high living leads him to an ex-fighter with an unexplained movie contract, a bigtime gambler who died by his own knife, and finally to an answer he would rather not have known.
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Clarence Bassett, the manager of an exclusive Malibu country club, has a problem. To solve it he hires private detective Lew Archer, who is initially asked to drive off a young man named George Wall before being asked instead to search for Wall’s wife, Hester. Archer soon finds himself emerged in a web of stories told by Hester, which draw Archer to an unsolved murder involving a friend of Hester’s, a young ex-boxer turned aspiring actor, and a movie mogul in a partnership with a mob boss. Obstructed by secrets and opposed by thugs, Archer untangles in the hope of saving the lives of those enmeshed—including his own.

Ross Macdonald’s sixth Lew Archer novel reflects all of the strengths of the series. Within its well-plotted story, he spins a tragic tale of ambition, desire, greed, and frustration under the Southern California sun. The multilayered nature of the plot takes a little longer to come together than do some of the previous books in the series, reflecting Macdonald’s willingness to tinker with his formula in order to keep things fresh and different. It makes for a work that fans of detective noir will enjoy as an excellent example of the form by a true master of his craft. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
For some reason, I stumbled across an article on my telephone, from The New Repbulic, about how Ross Macdonald was every bit as good, if not better, than Raymond Chandler, when it came to writing hard-boiled, noir detective fiction. So, I had to find me some Ross Macdonald. I have a vague feeling I'd tried doing this before, and none was to be found in my local library. But, the Boston Public Library did have a few Macdonald's available for us Kindle folk. So, I began my Macdonald investigations with this particular book.

So, we're in Hollywood in the 1950s. Lew Archer is called to The Channel Club to meet with Clarence Bassett, the club's manager. It seems Bassett wants Archer to "dispose of" an annoyance, one George Wall. Wall, who claims to be married to Hester Campbell, claims she's run out on him, in Toronto, and is likely back in Southern California, and likely with one of the Channel Club's richest, most influential members, Simon Graff, the movie mogul. On his way into the club, Archer had already run into Wall. On the way out, he tries to chase Wall off, but Wall begs Archer to find his wife. Archer agrees to do that.

So, Archer begins looking for the wife, and along the way runs into a variety of weird occurrences: some folks seem suddenly to have garnered magic movie contracts, despite having no prior skill; some folks, who were thriving, suddenly find themselves on the down-hill slide; floozies and drunks wander into and out of the scenes; etc. Along the way, bodies start piling up, gangsters drift in and out, Archer and others get the crap beaten out of them, and so forth. All the good stuff of hard-boiled, noir novels. The one thing missing is that Archer doesn't appear to live on a steady diet of whiskey, unlike Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade.

Anyway, this is quite good, albeit a bit convoluted. I'll definitely be hunting me some more Archer.

Interestingly, I just discovered that one can take a class at an Ivy League college in Hard-Boiled and Noir Crime Fiction. Who knew life's gutter creatures had ascended the ivory towers of academia?
( )
  lgpiper | Jun 21, 2019 |
Grover Gardner is so great narrating as Lew Archer. And Ross MacDonald is a worthy successor to Raymond Chandler in the Los Angeles P.I. hard boiled genre! ( )
  leslie.98 | Sep 14, 2018 |
*Partial spoilers ahead*

In 1956 Ross Macdonald was a good, but not great, writer of detective novels. He had a lot of confidence in himself, and had produced some strong work (The Moving Target and The Way Some People Die, in particular), but at this stage of the game had fallen prey to a peculiar impulse which might have prevented him from becoming the master he already felt himself to be. Fortunately, it didn't: he recognized the deficiency and corrected it, eventually authoring undisputed classics like The Chill and The Underground Man. But in The Barbarous Coast, as in the earlier The Ivory Grin, Macdonald exhibited a meanness of spirit that was beneath him, making his villains sad old nebbishes so that he-man detective Lew Archer could lecture them about their inadequacies, their envy of younger, normally functioning people. Here he carried this distasteful schtick to even greater extremes, as when Archer berates a perfectly sympathetic young male character for having "too many feelings". It's a bemusing quirk that will come as a surprise if you've read any of the author's more mature books: a sanctimonious, bourgeois bitchiness quite out of character for a world-weary private eye (and just plain hypocritical, considering the fact that Macdonald had jeeringly referred to Raymond Chandler as an old maid). That he learned to resist this temptation is a testament to the depth of his self-knowledge, and to his strength as a writer.

A sufficiently engaging crime yarn on its own terms, and better than what most of his peers were doing at the time--but The Barbarous Coast is far from Ross Macdonald's best work. He improved enormously after this. ( )
3 vote Jonathan_M | May 3, 2017 |
Ross Macdonald was a perceptive, witty, and cynical observer of that odd piece of the world, Southern California. That being the case, it was inevitable that he would, from time to time, turn his attention to Hollywood. Much of The Barbarous Coast takes place in Malibu, up the coast from that provincial neighborhood, but as Malibu is largely a playground for the denizens of Hollywood, The Barbarous Coast can still be counted as a Hollywood novel, perhaps not one of the great ones, but still, a worthy consideration of that provincial scene and an excellent further installment in the investigations of, and the investigation of, Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer.
1 vote dcozy | Sep 11, 2014 |
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The Channel Club lay on a shelf of rock overlooking the sea, toward the southern end of the beach called Malibu.
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Time was running through me, harsh on my nerve-ends, hot in my arteries, impalpable as breath in my mouth. I had the sleepless feeling you sometimes get in the final hours of a bad case, that you can see around corners, if you want to, and down into the darkness in human beings.
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In The barbarous coast, Lew Archer's pursuit of a girl who jackknifed too suddenly from high diving to high living leads him to an ex-fighter with an unexplained movie contract, a bigtime gambler who died by his own knife, and finally to an answer he would rather not have known.

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