Ross MacDonald (born Kenneth Millar) was one of the last of the old school, hardboiled mystery novelists, and his creation, private eye Lew Archer, was openly modeled on Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. It was an act of homage that resulted in a long series of terrific novels, and I recently discovered, to my surprise and pleasure, that I had not, in fact, read all of them, as I had previously thought. I stumbled across The Ivory Grin not long ago at a Borders here in Fairfax, and quickly realized that this book, originally published in 1952, was the one Archer novel that had eluded me all these years.
The action is set in Archer’s stamping ground, southern California. He’s hired by a mannish, middle-aged woman - who shows up at his office wearing a blue mink stole and a lot of flashy diamonds - to find the woman’s black maid, who has supposedly run off with some expensive jewelry. Something about the woman – her hardness, her aggressive attitude, her reticence – strikes Archer as fishy. In the course of tracking down the black maid, he stumbles across somebody else who has been hired by his client, apparently for the same reason. Archer eventually finds Lucy (not really a maid, but a nurse) with her throat cut in a cheap hotel room in a Los Angeles suburb, and his determination to bring her killer to justice leads him into a dark world populated with Detroit mobsters, psychopathic hit-men and gun-molls on the run.
And of course, in addition to an intriguing plot, there is the marvelous gum-shoe prose:
The fat man came back to the office, his belly rising and falling under the T-shirt. His forearms were marked with blue tattooings like the printing on sides of beef. One on the right arm said: I Love You Ethel. His small eyes said: I love nobody.A fun read for admirers of the fedora-era of crime thrillers.
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“Here.” She produced a crumpled bill from a blue leather pouch and tossed it to me as if it were an old piece of Kleenex and I were a wastebasket.
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She had the kind of face, square-jawed and heavy-eyebrowed, that unlucky women sometime inherit from their fathers. It might have been handsome in a horsy way before age and ego had stiffened the bony framework and thrust it forward under the skin like concealed artillery.