home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the galton case

7 may 2011

Ross Macdonald's novels are full of identity-switching. People take on new names and new lives in an attempt to obliterate their old ones. Lew Archer stays the same. He understands the impulse to do away with a former self, but he remains on the side of coming to terms with that self rather than suppressing it.

In The Galton Case (1959), Archer meets the ultimate in double-switches. A complicated conspiracy is afoot to pass off a young Canadian actor as the heir to a Californian fortune. The fortune is so vast that a human life or two is nothing in the balance. By entering the picture, Archer precipitates the action of the novel. As usual, he's been set up. He's sent to the Bay Area to look for a man the conspirators know is dead. He finds the man's bones, and he finds the Canadian actor pretending to be the dead man's long-lost son: and thus, the long-lost grandson who stands to inherit the Galton millions.

People begin to die at the usual Archeresque rate. Archer himself is beaten unmercifully. (He's concussed several times in each of Macdonald's novels, a pace that would have turned his brain to spaghetti in real life; in fiction, it's simply part of the masochism inseparable from private-eye heroics. Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade specialize in similar beatings and shruggings-off thereof.)

Macdonald himself, or rather his real-life identity Kenneth Millar, was an American raised in Canada, unsure of his real personal and cultural inheritance. In the preface to the omnibus Archer at Large, Macdonald says that the germ of The Galton Case was the idea "Oedipus angry vs. parents for sending him away into a foreign country" (x). A classical return from exile figures in the novel. But so does a much more postmodern theme: the impostor disguised as his real self. John Galton, disguised as Theo Fredericks, is persuaded to disguise himself as John Brown, who is the real John Galton. When you pretend to be yourself, are you really anybody at all?

Macdonald considered The Galton Case "a breakthrough novel" (ix). It's a sharper and more urgent novel than earlier ones like The Way Some People Die or The Barbarous Coast, though I'm not sure it's any better; I admire the noirish sprawl of those books (and of the first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target). The Galton Case isn't exactly open and shut, but it doesn't wander around. Macdonald certainly meant "breakthrough" in terms of confronting and writing about himself. He seems to have treated the Archer series as an exercise in psychoanalysis. The therapy can't matter anymore; the resulting art seems better all the time.

Macdonald, Ross. The Galton Case. 1959. In Archer at Large. New York: Knopf, 1970. 3-192.