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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Black Money

Ross Macdonald

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To purchase Black Money

Title: Black Money
Author: Ross Macdonald
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966
Length: 228 pages
Availability: Black Money - US
in Four Later Novels - US
Black Money - UK
Black Money - Canada
Black Money - India
Black money - France
Schwarzgeld - Deutschland
Denaro nero - Italia
Dinero negro - España
  • A Lew Archer novel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : over-plotted and populated, but some damn fine writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Leader . 11/4/1966 Henry A. Woodfin
The Spectator . 6/3/1976 Patrick Cosgrave
Sunday Times . 28/8/1966 Julian Symons
TLS . 15/9/1966 MacGregor Urquhart

  From the Reviews:
  • "Black Money is, I think, his best book yet. The usual Macdonald themes are present, but they are treated with even greater lucidity and sharpness than before. (...) Macdonald combines the elegiac them of The Great Gatsby with scrupulous observation of the minute details of modern life -- all rendered in neatly balanced prose that make his characters both individuals and types." - Henry A. Woodfin, The New Leader

  • "But economy has been taken too far by Fontana, who print on the last page of Black Money a form which one is encouraged to cut out and to send in in order to receive a full catalogue: if one does this, however, one loses the conclusion of the book, which is carrying mystery too far. But those who do not have a copy should buy Black Money anyway, and to hell with the catalogue" - Patrick Cosgrave, The Spectator

  • "Witty, intelligent and humane, with a sympathetic understanding of various kinds of corruption, Archer is now by a long chalk the best private eye in the business." - Julian Symons, Sunday Times

  • "(A)nother thoroughly effective one about his golden-hearted private eye." - MacGregor Urquhart, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Black Money is narrated by Los Angeles-based private investigator Lew Archer, but the case he's hired on pulls him to the wealthy Californian enclave of Montevista -- "an international watering hole for nearly a century". He's hired by young Peter Jamieson, the love of Peter's life and high school sweetheart, Virginia 'Ginny' Fablon, having taken up a with a suspect foreigner calling himself Francis Martel -- and Peter wants to save her from him, or from herself.
       Martel has some polish, and apparently a good amount of money. He claims to be a Frenchman, abroad and laying low because president de Gaulle sees him as a continuing threat to his power -- "There could be very serious international repercussions if Francis were discovered here", Ginny's mother tries to convince Archer. In any case, the smart and beautiful Ginny appears to be completely in his thrall, and has already committed to a life with him.
       Peter wants Archer to expose the fraud that Martel is -- but Martel pulls off the Frenchman-act pretty convincingly, the money seems real, and Ginny has made her choice. Still, Archer digs around, and it doesn't take long for him to figure out that a lot of things aren't quite what they seem.
       The Jamiesons and Fablons have long been neighbors, but the Fablons have been down on their luck for a while, and took a tough hit when Ginny's father died seven years earlier, an apparent suicide. Ginny took it particularly hard, eventually interrupting her promising college career -- which she's now abandoned completely.
       The fancy local Tennis Club is one point where a lot of the trails seem to cross, and Martel even settles in there for a while -- but is on his way out when Archer begins sniffing around. And, as Archer also soon learns, Martel is particularly careful about not being photographed -- complicating Archer's inquiries, since he has a hard time getting a picture of the man to show around. Martel may not be on the run from de Gaulle, but he certainly does seem to be on the run from something.
       A professor Tappinger -- Ginny's former French teacher, disappointed scholar, and struggling family man (with a wife whose roaming eye alights on Archer) -- is enlisted to draw up a five-question test to help test Martel's French bona fides -- one of the less convincing turns of the novel -- and, like a local doctor, keeps resurfacing in the picture as Archer peels away the layers of the case.
       The basic-seeming case escalates when two of the main actors wind up murdered -- and Archer is convinced there's a connection with Ginny's father's death, which looks increasingly suspicious to him. Gambling debts -- and it wasn't always cash that was involved in settling them -- as well as both Las Vegas and Panamanian money laundering also come into play, but with several of the main figures operating under different names at different times, it takes Archer a while to disentangle the whole mess.
       It is a busy plot, with a lot of moving figures as well as past events catching up with the present. Black Money nevertheless moves along briskly and suspensefully enough, but the somewhat clunky mystery (or mysteries) packed together isn't the main selling point. It's attitude and observation in the the quick-beat, dialogue-heavy novel that make it such an enjoyable -- and, at some points, excellent -- read.
       Archer gets to sum up his philosophy near the end:

     She gave me a puzzled look. "I don't get you, Archer. What's your angle ?"
     "I like people, and I try to be of some service."
     "And that adds up to a life ?"
     "It makes life possible, anyway. Try it some time."
       Macdonald works the nicely turned grand pronouncements in well, often undermining the moment ever so slightly by acknowledging what he's doing, so that they don't stand out too uncomfortably -- "You're full of sententious remarks, aren't you ? You're fuller that La Rochefoucauld", he even allows someone to mention -- or, occasionally, transcending them, as when Peter's inebriated father rambles on:
"It's dangerous to get what you want, you know. It sets you up for tragedy. But my poor son can't see that. Yung people can't learn from the misfortunes of their elders."
     He was becoming faintly garrulous. Looking past him at the mountains, I had a feeling of unreality, as if the sunlit world had moved back out of reach.
       Black Money relies too much on quickly-drawn extremes of character -- so many of them that Macdonald has to spread his attention too thin. Sometimes the sketch is right to the point, beginning with his client, the "middle-aged boy" Peter, who turns to food to fill the voids in his life:
Under his carefully tailored Ivy League suit he wore a layer of fat like easily penetrable armor.
       And when he first encounters the beautiful Ginny Archer finds:
Her movements seemed shaky and her eyes a little dull, as if she had already traveled too far and too fast.
       In this dialogue-heavy novel, Macdonald is a master of concision, and at its best a single sentence or tight paragraph conveys more than pages of exposition might:
     "Nobody had to tell me." Your voice told me, doll, and the way you have to keep using your body in little conspicuous ways as if you were treading water. The way you looked at the room told me, and the way the room looked back.
       But with so many characters, and Archer almost constantly on the move -- he even flies to Las Vegas, for a brief look -- the story never settles in comfortably enough around any of the characters -- a shame, because quite a few of them have stories that could bear much fuller telling. Yes, what Macdonald does offer is very impressive -- but it's a lot packed into the one story.
       No question, Black Money is a very good read, crisp hard-boiled fiction with some truly first-rate writing. But it still feels a bit cobbled together -- so many characters and so many layers to the plot and connections (and some of the characters) making for a jumble that fits together well enough, but could have done with lingering over or expanding on many of its details.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 October 2017

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Black Money: Reviews: Ross Macdonald: Other books by Ross Macdonald under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian-American author Ross Macdonald (actually: Kenneth Millar) lived 1915 to 1983.

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