THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE
One of His Best
I won’t argue with any of the well-deserved praise the book received. The plot is elegant. The core mystery, that of Campion’s character, is preserved until the penultimate chapter. Even then, we get a convincing explanation for his reticence. He is a damaged man, like so many characters in this sad story. I fully agree with Schopen that the last third of the book is “a dazzling series of reversals.”
Macdonald often said that the real focus of moral interest should be on the murderer, not the victim. His model was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Of course, deeply portraying the character of the murderer in a mystery is a bit of a challenge. Here, Macdonald does it brilliantly. By describing the character of Mark Blackwell, we are told what kind of a husband and father he was, and what kind of impact he had on his daughter. Harriet’s criminal behavior comes as a shock, but we have been subtly conditioned to accept it from the time we learn her father’s true nature. This is the kind of a man who would have a terrible effect upon a daughter.
Archer’s role is rather passive. His conclusions are frequently wrong. He is the recipient of information but often his own questions turn up only lies and distractions. It’s not for lack of energy—it would be an exhausting task to total how many miles he racks up during his investigation, but it would have to include two trips to Mexico and uncounted shuttling between San Francisco, Citrus City, Los Angeles, and Malibu. This is Macdonald’s sleight of hand. He keeps Archer on the move to disguise the fact that the investigation isn’t going anywhere.
But Archer’s lack of progress isn’t because of a lack of determination:
- After being fired by Blackwell he maneuvers Isobel into hiring him instead.
- Archer lies to the police about the identity of the woman they know only as Isobel Jamiet.
- He is willing to sabotage any possible attraction that might develop between Isobel and himself with a harsh, accusatory interrogation. Archer is always more interested in the truth regardless of the consequences.
Macdonald’s sleight of hand is evident most clearly in the last chapters. He moves us along too fast to reflect. Archer makes a horrendous blunder in his questioning of Blackwell at the Malibu beach house—a blunder that not only delayed the resolution of the case, but that gives Blackwell an overwhelming incentive to commit suicide. If not for Campion’s decision to talk, the death of Blackwell might well have allowed the murderer to go free.
Yet still, we must credit Archer for his fundamental insight that, no matter how unappealing Campion may be, no matter how much circumstantial evidence is against him, Archer is not satisfied with the easy answers we have at the end of Chapter 18. Without his need for a rigorous explanation that takes all the facts into account, the truth would not have come out.
Speir admires the book but concedes that it depends upon “an astonishing coincidence.” I think the one he has in mind is that Archer would see and remember a girl wearing that brown tweed coat, but it’s not the only one:
- Harriet takes her father’s coat to a murder in the first place.
- Harriet drives unerringly from Malibu to Citrus City, where she has apparently never been before, finds the old Jaimet house in the dark, and buries the body without tools.
- After Harriet’s disappearance, her car is carefully inspected by the police and no one finds any evidence that a body killed with a stab wound through the heart was transported inside.
- Campion was incurious about not only who was the father of his wife’s baby but also where the money was coming from. (Interest in either would have revealed the other.)
- Archer runs into Anne Castle at the airport. (OK, nothing turns on this, but for the sake of including unbelievable events . . .)
I hesitate to ride this horse too far because coincidence is the warp and weft of his fiction. Yes, Archer is unbelievably lucky. But he makes his own luck, with keen observation and a good memory. Let’s leave it at that.
Macdonald spent ten days in Ajijic, Mexico, the town where the book is set, obtaining background for the book. I wish I could say that it showed. My plot summary cuts out the descriptive details, of course, but they weren’t memorable. Macdonald was justly famous for his use of imagery, and he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the use of imagery in Coleridge. He was writing wonderful descriptive passages, especially about the sea, as far back as The Moving Target. Here, with a truly exotic setting, we get very little. He would have been better off staying home and using the time to study picture postcards.
Next is one of his masterpieces, The Chill.