Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series is my personal favorite mystery series. The mysteries themselves are often dense and layered, yet Macdonald’s Archer is able to empathize with his prey, helping to develop a fully formed story beyond just cops-and-killers. After the earliest books, Macdonald would eschew the tough talking Chandler-esque dynamic in his character in favor of one who is aware of his masculinity and mournful enough of the world’s social ills.
Despite often writing about the lives of wealthy and powerful people who do naughty things, Macdonald’s works can never be described as lurid. These aren’t fake, Kardashian-like avatars but real people with real problems that they bring upon themselves, often due to unconsummated desire. The Zebra-Striped Hearse is one of many that fits this description.
This is my first re-read of an Archer novel since I finished the series last year. It is perhaps a curious choice as this one was far from my favorite. I remember the ending being good but the plot was a tad too convoluted. At the time, I was going through some major life changes and the 2016 presidential election was unfolding in the background so I was distracted enough not to have fully engaged with this like I should have. Coupled with the Coens long simmering desire to make a movie out of it and I figured I’d give it another try.
I’m glad I did. The plot is still a bit convoluted. Macdonald inserts one too many characters and plot points than what is necessary. And because I knew the ending, it lost a little steam from full engagement with the plot. But this is still a good novel. I didn’t realize the symbolic importance of the titular vehicle the first time: a reminder that death is just around the corner at any moment. It’s apropos for what unfolds in this one. And it leaves the reader with the typical maudlin feeling as I reflected on my life and my own family dynamics after finishing.
I wouldn’t recommend it as your gateway to the Archer series but it is good. I’m leaving it at 4-stars but in some ways, I appreciated it more this time around.