Mon 10 Feb 2014
ROSS MACDONALD – The Instant Enemy. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1968. Reprinted many times.
In many ways The Instant Enemy is typical of Macdonald’s entire output, in that the emphasis is on story and plot, and the personality of the detective, one Lew Archer, hardly ever enters into it.
Archer, in other words, is an observer, and we never get much of an insight into what makes him tick. One exception I noted was on page 112 (in the Warner paperback edition I read), where the possibility of getting paid $100,000 jars Archer into the unexpected realization that maybe he might even retire.
That’s probably a million dollars in today’s money, and he feels pretty good about the idea. The moments lasts for only a page, though, and then it’s back to the case on hand. It starts out simply enough — he’s hired to bring back a runaway daughter who’s gone off with a psycho boy friend with a sawed-off shotgun.
Things are never that simple in a Ross Macdonald book, however, and soon all sorts of entanglements with the past begin to emerge, like pulling a root out of a sewer pipe and finding you’re dragging the whole tree out with it. If trees had Oedipus fixations, I think the analogy would be complete. (See page 146.)
Although Instant Enemy is much like all of Macdonald’s other books, and the ending is absolutely terrific, I don’t think this is one of his better ones. (Those of you you’ve read them all recently, please feel free to contradict me on this.) I think it may be the pacing. It’s relentless; it doesn’t give up for a minute; and if you’re so minded, it could become downright monotonous.
Archer is on the go from the beginning of the book to the end. When he’s tired for a moment, he pulls over to a motel and sleeps for a couple of hours, and then he’s on the road again. I think a good many readers are going to feel the need to pull over themselves, right about the three-quarters mark.
If I’m right about this, and maybe I’m not, second-rate Macdonald is still number-one goods, but in this particular case, the really prime stiff is all at the end. People who prefer the light frothy sort of mystery simply aren’t going to get there.