The Far Side of the Dollar
Standing on the shoulders of Hammett and Chandler came Ross Macdonald. His novels had all the hardboiled elements, political angles and wit of his predecessors but with added psychological depth. His private detective, Lew Archer, starred in eighteen novels and a number of short stories, and is one of the Hound's greatest crime fighters.
Has Tom Hillman run away from his exclusive reform school, or has he been kidnapped? Are his wealthy parents protecting him or their own guilty secrets? And why does every clue lead Lew Archer to an abandoned Hollywood hotel, where starlets and sailors once rubbed shoulders with grifters - and where the present clientele includes a brand-new corpse.
While Archer’s at the school, Ralph Hillman bursts in, saying that Tom’s been kidnapped and his captors are demanding ransom money. Archer goes back to the Hillman home, determined to find out all he can about Tom Hillman, so that he can start to trace the boy.
Very soon, Archer gets the feeling that there’s more to this case than a desperate kidnapper who wants money in exchange for the safe return of a wealthy boy. First, Ralph and Elaine Hillman are unusually reticent about Tom’s past and the reasons why he was placed in Laguna Perdida. Even though Archer tries to persuade the Hillmans that their son’s activities might have put him into contact with the kidnappers and could be a clue to his whereabouts, they’re not willing to say much. Archer’s convinced that they know more than they’re telling him. There’s also evidence that Tom may have joined the kidnappers of his own free will. If that’s true, then Tom Hillman might be a part of a plot to extort money from his father. And then there are the things that Archer eventually learns about Tom’s kidnappers. It turns out that their pasts are linked with Ralph Hillman’s past, and that’s an important part of the reason that Tom is missing.
Then comes murder...
Several important elements are woven throughout this novel. One of them is the theme of family and what defines family. We find that even though the Hillmans share a surname and to all outward appearances are a family, they’re not really a family unit. The Hillman family seems to have disintegrated even before Tom’s disappearance, and Ralph and Elaine Hillman don’t seem to draw closer even as they’re both desperate for Tom’s return. In fact, they’re driven further apart, and each in a different way blames the other for what’s happened to Tom. For instance, at one point, Archer finds a piece of evidence that shows where Tom might be, and shows it to the Hillmans. Elaine Hillman is so shaken that she drops knitting yarn on the floor. When her husband tries to pick it up, she says, “Get away, you’re no help, either. If you’d been a decent father, this would never have happened.”
All of these themes play out in the context of a “hardboiled” novel featuring a “hardboiled” detective. As you’d expect from this context, there’s a lot of action. Archer gets into more than one scuffle, and at one point, he’s unjustly accused of murder. As he searches for the truth about Tom Hillman, we see how the private investigator operates (or did in 1956 when the novel was written). He checks license plates, “plugs in” to gossip he hears from informants, calls in favours and does some traveling, among other things. He interviews witnesses, too, and since he isn’t a police officer, it’s interesting to see how he manages to persuade witnesses to talk.
Like many other “hardboiled” novels that look at the seamier, more unpleasant side of life, this novel doesn’t paint a rosy picture. The Hillman family is clearly dysfunctional, and so are several of the other characters we meet. And yet, there is optimism in the story.
About Ross Macdonald:
Ross Macdonald is the pseudonym of the American-Canadian writer of crime fiction Kenneth Millar. He is best known for his series of hardboiled novels set in southern California and featuring private detective Lew Archer.
Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, and raised in his parents' native Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, where he started college. When his father abandoned his family unexpectedly, Macdonald lived with his mother and various relatives, moving several times by his sixteenth year. The prominence of broken homes and domestic problems in his fiction has its roots in his youth.In Canada, he met and married Margaret Sturm (Margaret Millar) in 1938. They had a daughter, Linda, who died in 1970. He began his career writing stories for pulp magazines. Millar attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and a Ph.D. in literature. While doing graduate study, he completed his first novel, The Dark Tunnel, in 1944. At this time, he wrote under the name John Macdonald, in order to avoid confusion with his wife, who was achieving her own success writing as Margaret Millar. Macdonald is the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the master of American hardboiled mysteries. His writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters. Macdonald's plots were complicated, and often turned on Archer's unearthing family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels. Macdonald deftly combined the two sides of the mystery genre, the "whodunit" and the psychological thriller. Even his regular readers seldom saw a Macdonald denouement coming.
The novel begins at Laguna Perdida, a boarding school for troubled teens. Archer’s been hired by Dr. Sponti, head of the school, to track down seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, who’s run away from the school. Tom’s parents, Ralph and Elaine Hillman, are wealthy, well-connected people and Sponti knows he and his school will be held responsible if their son is not returned promptly.