Friday, December 14, 2012

Life without Archer: The Ferguson Affair (1960), by Ross Macdonald

Maybe choosing a Ross Macdonald mystery for a forgotten book of the week is kind of a cheat.

Or maybe sometimes life gives you hard choices and cheating is the only thing in your life you've got left.

Maybe you've just got to bite the bullet that's got your name on it in caps and pick a forgotten book of the week that isn't actually forgotten. Maybe what you do is you knock back another drink and try to forget all those people in your life who you know just have to remember the Ross Macdonald novel you've picked, or maybe you just try to convince yourself that everyone else will have forgotten they remember it too.  Maybe--Oh, to hell with it, I have a review to write and it's 3 a.m.

My rationale here is that The Ferguson Affair (1960) is one of the rare Ross Macdonald books with a lead investigator who is not Lew Archer.

Between 1949 and 1976, Ross Macdonald published eighteen detective novels with Lew Archer and only two without him, the wonderfully alliterative Meet Me at the Morgue (1953) and the extremely blandly titled The Ferguson Affair (1960).

Though these latter two novels now have been reprinted, like all the Archers, in paperback by the laudable Black Lizard, they get much less attention than the Archer books.  Just look at the sales on Amazon.   

The Moving Target, the first Archer novel, is positioned at about 73,000, while The Ferguson Affair is at about 780,000 and Morgue at 1,168,000!  Heck, the newly available Coachwhip edition of Todd Downing's The Cat Screams (fine book!) is at 668,000.

cherchez la femme
I know people like series detectives, but I've never felt Lew Archer was that interesting, considered purely as a character. As a conduit for Ross Macdonald's words and ideas, yes, he is quite interesting, but then so is Bill Gunnarson, the defense attorney investigator in The Ferguson Affair. Frankly, I could not tell the two men apart, really, except that Gunnarson is married, happily, to a wife about to give birth to their child when the novel begins.

Gunnarson gets involved in "the Ferguson affair" through a new client of his, a young nurse arrested for selling stolen jewelry.  Through a former--she says--boyfriend the woman seems to be linked to a burglary ring, but is she really innocent?

From this simple enough beginning Gunnarson soon finds himself enmeshed, along with the reader, in a net of criminal circumstances of impressive intricacy.

I really have to hand it to Macdonald for so beautifully managing such a complicated plot.  As things develop there are really two mysteries and you'll be clever indeed if you manage to completely solve even one of them before the author reveals all.

Black Lizard's brilliant Mad Men cover
for the new paperback edition
There are many murders (I was reminded of the title of a Dashiell Hammett story, "The Bodies Piled Up"), but comparatively little onstage violence, for a hard-boiled novel.  The cast of characters is large and uniformly well-conveyed, from the poorer Mexican-Americans to the wealthier habitues of the Foothill Club, including the mega-rich Colonel Ian Ferguson (oilman) and his much younger, ex-actress wife, the former Holly May.

The writing is up to the Ross Macdonald standard, which means many passages that linger in the memory:

"He was talking like a man in a dream, a rosy sentimental dream of the sort that burns like celluloid and leaves angry ashes in the eyes."

Angry ashes in the eyes.  Beautiful stuff there.

The Ferguson Affair is one of the best detective novels I have read this year, much better, I think, than the other Ross Macdonald I read in 2012, The Barbarous Coast.  It makes me happy I still have left to read about half Macdonald's novels.  Don't let the dull title put you off, The Ferguson Affair is a good one.  Now, where's that bottle....


  1. I know that, as a reader, I'm more likely to read a series before getting to an author's non-series output. It was the same thing with Christie and Carr. I read all the Poirots, Marples, and T&T novels before reluctantly plunging into the non-series stuff, and then I devoured it. With Carr, I hesitated over the historical novels due to the dreadful cover of my edition of CAPTAIN CUT-THROAT, and finally bit the bullet with THE DEVIL IN VELVET -- a most happy choice.

    That being said, I like to think that I've matured enough to give an author's work a fair sampling, including both series stuff and non-series stuff, sooner than I might have done five, six, seven years ago.

  2. Great post Curt (and I have the Crime Club edition on my shelf) - this was probably just an attempt to diversify commercially if nothing else and apparently Macdonald was thinking of doing non-Archer books in the 1970s before ill-health got the better of him. His work from the period is just superb though. Incidentally, it was adapted into a halfway decent TV-Movie CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR (1992), albeit with a gender switch for the protagonist so that the late Farrah Fawcett could play the role. I have no idea if it's easily available but I remember quite liking it at the time.


  3. I think I like Margaret Millar better too, on the whole, but Kenneth Millar wrote some good ones!

  4. So, flash forward to 2021...I've been rereading a few Ross MacDonald, Lew Archer novels...haven't read The Ferguson Affair yet but will...and at the moment I'm watching Criminal Behaviour and loving it...