The Zebra Striped Hearse
Vintage, 1998 (orig. 1962)
First Line: She was waiting at the office door when I got back from my morning coffee break.
When trying to fill out my detective fiction reading with a broad spectrum spread across more than two decades I stumbled across the names Russ Macdonald and Lew Archer. While The Underground Man seems to be most frequently cited as Macdonald’s best work to feature PI Lew Archer (along with The Chill) I was unable to acquire a copy and instead “settled” for the Edgar Award Winning The Zebra Striped Hearse. While it lacks the incisive social commentary frequently attributed to The Underground Man it is still a taught, thrilling, mystery that keeps you guessing until the end; and then some.
The Zebra Striped Hearse, in true detective story and noirish fashion, opens with a damsel in distress. An impassioned plea from an attractive woman lands Lew Archer at something of an impasse potentially working towards a woman’s desire to see her step-daughter happy and working towards a father’s desire to protect his daughter from harm. Lew Archer is a PI cut from the same vein as Marlowe. Though where Marlowe’s knight-errant nature tends to shine through his cynical approach to life Archer never let’s his own emotions get in the way of his case. That isn’t to say that Archer doesn’t discuss or acknowledge his own reactions to the people and situations he finds himself in only that his empathy and sympathetic nature is put to the side if favor of getting the job done. Archer is dogged in his determination to get the job done to the point of sacrificing even potential emotional entanglements. It doesn’t really win him any friends. Here it means often straining his relationship with his employer to the breaking point.
Written in the sixties The Zebra Striped Hearse walks a fine line between the wanton violence of I, the Jury and the more directed approach of Raymond Chandler. While the reader gets glimpses of several corpses and sees a fair amount of gore towards the end of the novel it lacks the chaotic feel of Spillane’s work even though it might exceed the bounds of what Chandler deemed necessary. Perhaps more fascinating is novel’s juxtaposition of Lew’s lack of sexual entanglement with the depravity of the villain that is revealed late in the novel. Macdonald manages to deftly skate around tackling the topic head on while putting forth a rather poignant and tragic portrayal of the consequences. These narrative acrobatics manage to detract nothing from the horror that these revelations engender while at the same time avoiding any potential fallout a more explicit discussion might result in.
What I find fascinating here as well, and not evident in the works from Spillane and Chandler, is the amount of actual detecting that Archer does. Where Mike Hammer seemed to barrel his way through problems, and Marlowe seemed to effortlessly gravitate towards the right people, neither seemed to put in the legwork. Archer on the other hand bounces around from a variety of locations along the California coast, Nevada, and Mexico ask actual questions from people who don’t always turn out to be involved, at least directly, with the case he is working. While each manages to help piece together a complete picture the effect is gradual and can be followed by the reader with little, if any, need for large intuitive leaps. There is more reliance on the hermeneutic code in Lew’s actions and in Macdonald’s prose a fact that lends a certain participatory air to act of reading the novel that contrasts the almost fly on the wall experience I had while reading both The Long Goodbye and I, the Jury.
As stated above The Zebra Striped Hearse is an entertaining mystery that keeps the reader, along with Archer, guessing right up until the end. While it lacks the broad scope of Marlowe’s commentary in The Long Goodbye, or the moral ambiguity of Mike Hammer it manages to produce a rather deft and delicate look at the consequence of actions that wouldn’t be misplace on an episode of Law and Order: SVU. Which is perhaps a depressing fact for a novel written almost a half a century ago. If you are a mystery fan and have yet to give Russ Macdonald and Lew Archer a try The Zebra Striped Hearse is a good place to start.