Review of The Way Some People Die
Mrs. Lawrence is concerned because she hasn’t heard from her daughter, Galatea, in months. Fearing that her pretty daughter has fallen in with dangerous men—whom she always seems to attract—she hires Lew Archer to locater her against his better judgment. Chasing leads from Pacific Point to Los Angeles to San Francisco, Archer discovers he’s not the only one looking for Galatea. She may have married Joe Tarantine, a hustler who stole something of value from a Mafioso named Dowser. Archer also gets caught in the mix with Herman Speed, Joe’s old partner who got double-crossed and even Mario, Joe’s aggressive brother who won’t let a little thing like a severe beating keep him from hunting down Joe and Galatea to get what he’s owed. The police of various jurisdictions also get involved, and Archer isn’t sure who among them might be on the take with Dowser, leaving him wondering if there is anyone in southern California he can trust, including the beautiful and elusive Galatea.
If You Think You’ve Arrived, You’re about to be Shown the Door
Archer is an interesting protagonist because of his restlessness. Early in the story he says, “So far I was getting nowhere, but I felt good. I had the kind of excitement, more prophetic than tea-leaves, that lifts you when anything may happen and probably will” (22). As readers saw in The Moving Target, Archer takes these jobs in no small part because he enjoys the possibility and danger of them. For him, the job is the juice. Even when he has moments to rest and recover at home, Archer finds he can’t sit still. One morning after some much-needed rest he says, “I was tapping one heel on the floor in a staccato rhythm and beginning to bite my left thumbnail. A car passed in the street with the sound of a bus I was about to miss. The yellow sunlight was bleak on the linoleum. The third cup of coffee was too bitter to drink” (120). At home in a moment of peace, he quickly becomes lost and craves the excitement of the case. This personality quirk does get him into some trouble, and as one character remarks to Archer, “you’re always looking for an angle, trying to find a twist in a perfectly straight case” (161). Readers know Archer goes after the tough cases, but they are also invited to wonder how much trouble he brings on himself. He is, however, made into a sympathetic protagonist because of his willingness to out and try to save some people, though it is often surprising who get saved through his efforts.
Plenty of secondary characters are fun to read like Mr. Raisch, Marjorie, and Mario because of their big personalities. They give Archer a chance to exercise his wit. Other characters, like Keith Dalling and Ruth, are interesting because neither the reader nor Archer knows what to expect from them. Every time it seems like they’re pinned down, they say or do something unexpected that changes the direction of the story or the way Archer and the readers see them.
Like Somebody’s Memory of a Town
The writing in this novel is top notch with the settings of Pacific Point, San Francisco and other parts of California at the start of the 1950s are established as a setting with the same sharp, evocative language as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. While driving through the soon-to-be-developed suburbs, the description is anything but hopeful:
[A] maze of gravel roads crisscrossing like city streets, but practically uninhabited. A handful of houses scattered here and there, street-lights at most corners, that was Oasis. It reminded me of an army camp I had seen at a staging point in the far west Pacific, after its division had left for bloodier pastures. (37)
The setting, with its loneliness and echoes of violence, reminds the readers of what lies at the heart of mystery and crime novels, particularly noir—wherever people go, they bring their darkness with them.
Clearing the Board
The Way Some People Die is certainly worth reading, especially for fans of hard-boiled west coast fiction. There are just enough plot twists to keep the audience second-guessing, and the cast of characters adds a layer of psychological and thematic complexity.
Macdonald, Ross. The Way Some People Die. Knopf, 1971.
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© 2017 Seth Tomko