“She was a human being with more grief on her young mind than it was able to bear.”
–Archer, speaking of Mildred, in The Doomsters
Towards the close of The Doomsters, Archer tells Mildred he can’t hate for the murders, even after she confesses she had also considered killing Carl and the child Martha as well, so that the entire Hallman fortune would come to her. Despite it all, he sees her only as a victim of her upbringing and circumstances.
“You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.”
–Sam Spade to his girlfriend in The Maltese Falcon
WHY IS ARCHER SO MUDDLED?
Simply put, the Archer of The Doomsters is not the Archer of the other books. It would have been better if this was a non-Archer book. The reader would have been spared the cloudy relativism of this version of Archer. Macdonald learned from his mistake and returned Archer to the role we are familiar with, and which helped make his later books so great.
The role of Archer in the series overall is to stand at a distance and observe; the Archer of The Doomsters is emotional, impulsive, and unaware of his own motives. He becomes sexually obsessed with his client’s wife; and because he cannot see her clearly, the resolution of the case is delayed. We are also treated, almost gratuitously, to a scene involving the failure of Archer’s marriage. In every other book, it is briefly mentioned that Archer and Sue simply drifted apart and their separation was dignified. The Archer of this book chased after his ex, apparently lubricated by a good deal of alcohol. It’s a sad, common story and it diminishes Archer in our eyes.
“In The Doomsters, Archer became a man who was not so much trying to find the criminal as understand him.”
–Ross Macdonald, in a 1976 interview
It’s an interesting observation, made with twenty years of reflection, but is it true?
- The primary criminal force is Doctor Grantland, and his motives are completely obscure. He has a thriving practice, can afford to dress well, has a nice house and drives an expensive car. Yet he kills Alicia Hallman and orders the death of her husband. There is not a shred of motive for either killing.
- If we look at Mildred, what insights do we get, other than her expressions of regret after she kills someone? Jerry cheated her and Carl on the guardianship, but that’s hardly a motive for murder.
- What about Zinnie’s death? I find that one obscure as well. She said she was going to Grantland’s house to see Grantland and that Zinnie was a target of opportunity. That doesn’t answer any questions—it raises two. Did she intend to see Grantland or to resume their affair? She can hardly claim a surprised rage at seeing Zinnie asleep in his bed; their affair was common knowledge, and Mildred and Grantland had stopped their own affair some months before.
- There is one explanation but it’s an ugly one—that Mildred hoped to be the last Hallman standing and the sole heir of the citrus ranch.
- Although there is page upon page of talk about Mildred, we are left without much more motivation than was supplied for Gattie in The Way Some People Die.
The Book is About Forgiving Linda Millar, Not Mildred Hallman
Macdonald outlines Mildred’s childhood and young adulthood in stark tones; an absent father, an alcoholic, emotionally unavailable mother, a childhood of isolation and neglect. In a less dramatic way, that was the upbringing of Linda Millar. She was an only child, her parents both reclused themselves to write for long periods, and neither of them had any idea how to be parents. Margaret had a semblance of a normal upbringing but Ross only briefly was exposed to a positive male role model.
Macdonald is famously sympathetic to his killers, but Mildred is an unworthy recipient of his charity, especially since it came at the cost of presenting a weak and inconsistent version of his series character.
The Never-Ending Confession
Archer’s feelings for Mildred make him less than fully effective as an interrogator. The confession should be like a good cross-examination—get in, take control of the witness, and force the truth of them. In this book, Mildred does most of the talking and Archer makes the occasional mild suggestion to keep the conversation going. It’s too long and it’s boring. And he fails to clear up several details. It’s as if he doesn’t want to know.
A number of commentators have criticized Rica’s story about being turned away by a drunken Archer; both its placement at the very end and whether it adds anything to the book at all. I personally think the book would be stronger with it; but if it needs to be in, Macdonald should have found a way to move it up ahead of Mildred’s confession.
Just In Passing
Sheriff Ostervelt, justifiably called the evilest character Macdonald ever created, comes out as the big winner. He kills his rival for Mildred’s attentions, and at the same time silences any inconvenient truths that Grantland knew. I foresee a future where the good sheriff makes regular prison visits to ensure that Mildred is treated right, subsidized by the taxpaying citizens of California. Every other character is either dead, locked up, trapped in a hopeless romance, or, in Archer’s case, unpaid.
The Doomsters is a clever mystery—who would suspect Mildred of any of the murders? It’s heartfelt; frankly, too much so for Archer to be the right detective for the part. It has fine imagery and snappy dialogue. The death of Alicia is handled very well—the details are ambiguous and it takes till the very end of the book before the moral responsibility for her death is clear. But ultimately The Doomsters is a final draft before his first masterwork, The Galton Case, which is where we will turn next.