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the zebra-striped hearse

1 november 2011

The Zebra-striped Hearse is a MacGuffin of a title but a heck of a hard-boiled novel. Like The Galton Case, it's a headlong Lew Archer novel with a tightly-focused plot. That's not to say that the plot never deceives. It's a murder mystery, after all. But one thing leads to another to another; there's little doubling back. By The Zebra-striped Hearse, Ross Macdonald had perfected the technique of letting Archer meet one desperate, defeated character after another. The basic plot movement of The Zebra-striped Hearse takes the form of one character telling Archer he really should be talking to another, whereupon he does. In the process we get to see a cross-section of deeply depressed America.

Two elements of The Zebra-striped Hearse remind one of the redoublings studied by Pierre Bayard in his deconstructive readings of detective fiction (Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? and Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong). Not to be too spoilerish, but: one dynamic in Hearse is that a detective's client may well be the murderer. Why would a criminal hire a detective to find himself (or, herself)? The reason lies in the second Bayardian dynamic in the novel: the "killer" takes the blame in order to deflect detection from the real killer.

Meanwhile, Lew Archer is sexually vulnerable, irresistably attractive, irrepressibly smart-mouthed. He gets beaten up a lot less in The Zebra-striped Hearse than in previous novels; perhaps Macdonald was trying to keep him from cumulative concussive disorders.

Private-eye novels start with a missing person or a background check. There are echoes of The Big Sleep in The Zebra-striped Hearse; a rich retired military officer wants Archer to dig up some dirt on the penniless artist his daughter is determined to marry. Archer digs up plenty of corpses and infinite trouble, but the dirt flies where it may, sticking in unexpected places. Archer gets fired and fired again, but the case, of course, takes on a life of its own. More than in other Archer novels, The Zebra-striped Hearse finds Archer directing a police investigation across several jurisdictions, and on pretty good terms with the cops in all of them. He assumes the explicit conscience of the law, rather than working outside it.

Not that every cop in the book sees things Archer's way. One "was a good cop but like other good cops he had an inflexible mind, once it was made up" (337). The good fictional detective is an expert reviser of stories. The bad one keeps telling tales that make narrative sense but psychological nonsense. Lew Archer tells very good ones indeed.

Macdonald, Ross. The Zebra-striped Hearse. 1962. In Archer in Jeopardy. New York: Knopf, 1979. 203-435.