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Review of The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Cover to the audiobook version of "The Galton Case"

Cover to the audiobook version of "The Galton Case"

Who Is Anthony Galton?

Private Investigator Lew Archer is tasked with searching for Anthony Galton, who disappeared about 20 years ago. His wealthy mother is on her deathbed, longing for reconciliation and desperate to find her only remaining heir to inherit her fortune. Her lawyer and physician don’t hold out much hope that Anthony will be found, but Archer is hired to placate her and do the best he can with a cold case. Before he can even get started, his car is stolen by a man who murdered an assistant to Sable, the Galtons' lawyer. Traveling to San Francisco to pick up an old trail, Archer discovers the police have a headless skeleton found buried near Galton’s last know residence. In a situation that Archer finds too convenient to be coincidental, a young man claiming to be Galton’s son emerges, searching for what happened to his birth parents. As he digs deeper and finds a connection to gangsters in Reno and violence on the Detroit-Canada border, Archer thinks he’s discovered a long-term con that people are willing to kill to protect.

The Past Is Always With Us

A standard of Macdonald’s novels is the way in which the crimes and sins of the past can touch and control the present. The more characters fixate on the past, the more they are bound to it, often setting themselves on destructive trajectories without realizing the consequences of their choices. Because Archer is an outsider, his view on the matters is objective and therefore trustworthy. When his clients seem satisfied with how the case develops, Archer is uncertain. He is suspicious about how so much information came to light so quickly after the case had been cold for so long (118). Other characters are blinkered by their desires, but Archer only wants to discover the truth of the situation. He’s similarly circumspect about the motives of the people hiring him because of the amount of money connected to old lady Galton. As Archer observes, greed has no bound because no matter how much money there is, for some people, it’s never enough.

This emphasis on the past versus the present stands out most noticeably in the first half of the novel where Archer traces Galton’s trail to San Francisco, which is a location much changed in the intervening time. The audience learns that “San Francisco in the thirties was a dangerous place for a boy to play around in” (16). The shift to post-WWII makes places almost unrecognizable as Archer and his associates discover. The amount of progress that occurred since the Depression is extensive, and Bolling, an old writer friend of Anthony Galton, has trouble finding the house he visited decades ago (67-9). This sense of transformation undergirds the themes of the novel, too, as Anthony wanted to transform himself into a writer, just as other characters are trying to transform or discover their identities. Because these themes crop up a lot in Macdonald’s novels, The Galton Case has some plot and thematic similarities to The Chill, The Moving Target, and The Instant Enemy. None of it is poorly done, but for some readers, it may seem like different variations of the same song.

First Edition Cover of The Galton Case

First Edition Cover of The Galton Case

Now It’s Personal

The Galton Case does take on a personal nature for Archer after he’s beaten and tortured while investigating the truth of John Galton’s claims about his parentage (132-8). When going back to question someone who led him into a trap, Archer uses shame and a variety of threats to get the information he wants, and he convinces a woman that her husband has abandoned her to protect his criminal brother, doing nothing to spare her feelings or sense of being lost and alone (142-4, 147-9). This damaged and sharp side to Archer isn’t one often seen in his novels, and it puts the action in a slightly different light. He has always taken difficult cases because they give him a thrill, but he’s rarely been so adversely affected by his investigations. It is clear to see he reacts differently with a case when he has skin in the game, so to speak. When confronting the Lemberg brothers who by design and ineptitude have caused him so much trouble, Macdonald writes of Archer, “Without giving the matter any advanced thought, I set myself on my heels and hit him with all my force on the point of the jaw. He went down and stayed” (201). This vengeful aspect isn’t always so prevalent in Lew Archer stories.

As seen in previous stories, though, Archer is ruthless when chasing down the facts of a situation: he pressures a woman to come clean to him privately or have her story in the papers; he doesn’t care if his client is happy with what might be a lie since the truth is what’s most important; he gets angry at a woman who blames herself for the poor choices that other people make; and he questions a suspect in a fragile mental state, trying to get to the truth of the fatal circumstances in which she found herself (106, 141, 192, 218-20). His focus on facts and truth sets him against other characters, some of whom question if there even are knowable facts or just appearances (224). That this equivocation is used to rationalize a crime makes it all the more reprehensible to Archer and the reader.

San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands in June 2017

San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands in June 2017

If You’re Going to San Francisco

There might be too many changes in location for some readers, especially when earlier sections of the novel focus more on how much one place, like San Francisco, can change over time. That focus builds the setting and theme simultaneously, which can seem dispiriting when that investment is left by the wayside for trips to Reno or Detroit. The changes in scenery aren’t bad, but they do seem like just that: changes of scenery. After the first third of the novel, none of the other locations are as strongly developed as the setting or for thematic resonance.

For the most part, though, The Galton Case is a worthy hardboiled detective story that showcases Macdonald’s language craftsmanship and ability to juggle a complex plot with characters of conflicting motivations.


Macdonald, Ross. The Galton Case. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1987.

© 2019 Seth Tomko