Friday, April 21, 2017

Blue City - Ross MacDonald

I didn't go near him. I had the notion that his tense body would give off a sour-sweat odor of depravity. But I moved close up to the wretched smile and took the envelope from breast pocket. He winced and jerked as if I was trying to tickle him. I had an impulse to hit him then, but I held it back. Violence might destroy the remnants of human dignity that kept him erect and smiling, and turn him into something queer--so queer that I wouldn't want to look at it. Another violence might do something to me too--make me howl like a dog or cry like a baby or pleat daisies in my hair.

Bantam Books
For his third novel, Blue City, Ross MacDonald was still finding his hardboiled style while giving the reader a straight up dose of sex and violence, It mostly works, barring MacDonald's ever-present penchant for the awkward English Major touches. It's a simple revenge tail of a prodigal son returning to his hometown to avenge the murder of his father. Only in in this instance, John Weathers doesn't know that his father J.D. Weathers has been murdered upon his ignominious return home. Unshaven, road weary, penniless, and homeless, he only learns of his father's murder, two years before, from a rummy in a cheap bar. A few hours later he learns that his father was something of a crook, albeit a gentleman crook, with an array of enemies from both sides of the law. The town itself, unnamed but located a few hours from Chicago, is a snake-pit of corruption and vice, thanks to the legacy of J.D. Weathers and his associates.

If' you've only read MacDonald's Lew Archer novels, Blue City is going to be a jarring experience for you. People are shot, stabbed, sliced, kicked in the head, hit with shovels, beaten, slapped, raped, slashed in the face, punched...well it ain't pretty friends. And John Weathers is no Lew Archer by any stretch. In fact it's difficult to have any empathy for John Weathers at all, as he spends the first third of the novel barging into living rooms and night clubs pushing people around and accusing them of being complicit in his father's murder.

For a lead protagonist, John Weathers is a little hard to swallow. We learn that he's been on the road for a number of years and is home from the war, and that he's only 21 years old. At no time in the book does he seem like a man that young. Granted, war experience will age a person, but John Weathers must have had some college time in the army because there are a few instances where he lapses into professor-speak, For instance, after beating the crap out of a couple hoods in a restroom he informs the bartender, "If the comic in the lavatory doesn't come to in another five minutes, you better send for a police ambulance."

He is also better read than your average 21 year old combat veteran. "Some of the titles I noted were Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Sentimental Education, To Have and Have Not, The Wild Palms. It was somehow comforting to know that the good people of the town that supported Kerch were protected against the lubricity of Rabelais, the immorality of Flaubert, the viciousness of Hemingway, and the degradation of Faulkner."

Plot-wise, Blue City doesn't come close to the labyrinthine plots of the Archer novels. There are past sins to answer for, some skeletons in closets, but the main plot is a relatively straightforward pursuit of justice. Everyone in the novel carries a collective guilt for the corruption within our unnamed Blue City. Complacency, greed and vice by its citizens produce the cesspool in which they must live. Even the mayor, Freeman Allister (note the subtle symbolism in the name!) is not immune to the lure of complacency in which he attempts to get along with the entrenched political forces.

Women don't fare any better then the nefarious men of Blue City. They're all either prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics and schemers. Abortion seems to be a thriving business. They're routinely beaten and raped in the course of their lives. It's literally South of Hell the way it's depicted. It's an angry novel, one that in some ways reminds me of Sanctuary by William Faulkner in its exuberant embrace of depravity.

First published in 1947, Blue City is still in print. I would recommend it to fans of hardboiled literature as well as fans of Ross MacDonald who may have missed this novel among the better known Archer series.