THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE              Part Two




                                 WE START WITH A PRE-MEETING


“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”

–Leo Tolstoy


In private eye stories, this translates into two openings—the detective goes to meet clients at their house, or clients come to his office.  This neat classification doesn’t hold up as well for amateur sleuths because the story demands an elaborate setup to show how the protagonist was drawn into the investigation, but it works well enough when the detective is a professional.

The Archer books employ both approaches. Often Macdonald has Archer go to the client’s home to emphasize either their wealth (The Moving Target) or to help tell the client’s backstory by showing their circumstances in ways they would not disclose (The Way Some People Die.) 

In The Zebra-Striped Hearse, Macdonald needs to use the second approach, because he starts the book with a surprise. While Archer is waiting at his office for his client, Mark Blackwell to arrive, Blackwell’s wife Harriet shows up first.

She is evasive, and the information she provides is not crucial in itself, but the fact that she came early, without her husband’s knowledge, speaks volumes.  Their meeting is interrupted by the arrival of her husband Mark, and he “escorts” her to her car and then returns.

To describe Mark Blackwell a man of volcanic temperament is to underrate volcanoes. As Archer quickly learns, Colonel Blackwell’s emotions run the gamut between rage and fury.  And he has reason to be upset, at least in his own mind.

  • His only child, Isobel, is keeping company with a man, Burke Damis, who Blackwell strongly disapproves of. Apparently Damis is the latest in a line of men who failed to pass muster.
  • Isobel will inherit a good deal of money when she turns 25 in six months, as well as the

Blackwell fortune when Mark dies.  Mark is convinced that Damis is a fortune hunter. Isobel has known the man for only a month and is already talking about marriage.

  • The two met in Mexico. Mark had sent Isobel there to stay with her mother, Mark’s ex-wife, and Isobel met Damis almost immediately after she arrived. Damis and Isobel flew back to Los Angeles about a week ago.
  • The couple had dinner with the Blackwells and it went badly. Among other things, Mark caught Damis looking in his clothes closet. Two hundred pages from now, this will be a clue.
  • Isobel and Damis are staying at Mark’s beach house in Malibu. After Archer reluctantly  agrees to take the case, Mark gives Archer his spare key.


Archer sums up Mark Blackwell at the end of their appointment:


Blackwell was a sad and troubled man, hardly competent to play God with anybody’s life. But the sadder and more troubled they were, the more they yearned for omnipotence. The really troubled ones believed they had it.



              Archer Meets Some California Girls (And They Think He’s No Fun)


Archer visits the beach house on the pretense of being a prospective renter.  He meets Burke Damis, who is busy painting and basically ignores him.  He also meets Isobel Blackwell, a tall ungainly girl, not terribly attractive, who fawns over Damis.  He pays her no more attention than he does to Archer.  In looking through the beach house, Archer notes a shaving kit with the initial B.C. on it. This will eventually be a clue as well.

Archer has a conversation with Isobel as he is leaving. She knows who he is and why he is there.  Archer is convinced she is lying about whatever she knows about Damis’ background, but it’s clear that she is indeed infatuated with him.

  • Archer stops at a seafood diner along the only road that gives access to the beach house and sits down to wait.
  • An old hearse, painted with a (wait for it) zebra pattern comes down to the beach, occupied by a half dozen young surfers. They come into the diner and eat lunch. Not long after they leave Archer sees Isobel’s car drive by. Archer tails them to Los Angeles but loses them.  Figuring they are going to the Blackwell house for a reprise of the disastrous dinner a few days before, Archer stops to get directions.
  • When Archer arrives, over the top of the hedge he can see Isobel and Damis, and Mark and Harriet Blackwell. Mark is holding a double-barreled shotgun.










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