Sunday, August 08, 2010

Lew Archer chats up a receptionist

John O'Hara having set me to thinking about the openings of books last week, I was pleased to find that Ross Macdonald's The Goodbye Look (1969), which I turned to this morning, has a great one.

Macdonald's novels don't mess around in their initial pages: Lew Archer nearly always has a case afoot within moments of the opening lines. But this one is even better than usual, offering a sampler of the qualities that make Archer such a compelling narrative voice--perceptiveness, natural sympathy, humor, and an openness to friendliness despite a lifetime's knowledge of the seamier side of human relationships:
The lawyer, whose name was John Truttwell, kept me waiting in the outer room of his offices. It gave the room a chance to work me over gently. The armchair I was sitting in was covered in soft green leather. Oil paintings of the region, landscapes and seascapes, hung on the alls around me like subtle advertisements.

The young pink-haired receptionist turned from the switchboard. The heavy dark lines accenting her eyes made her look like a prisoner peering out through bars.

"I'm sorry Mr. Truttwell's running so late. It's that daughter of his," the girl said rather obscurely. "He should have let her go ahead and make her own mistakes. The way I have."


"I'm really a model. I'm just filling in at this job because my second husband ran out on me. Are you really a detective?"

I said I was.

"My husband is a photographer. I'd give a good deal to know who--where he's living."

"Forget it. It wouldn't be worth it."

"You could be right. He's a lousy photographer. Some very good judges told me that his pictures never did me justice."

It was the mercy she needed, I thought.
Later in the novel, Macdonald has Archer directly address his most salient quality: that of being a good listener, someone to whom people feel compelled to talk, more or less honestly and emotionally, to him with very little prompting:
We went down together in the elevator. In its automatic intimacy she said:

"I've spilled all my secrets. How do you make people do it?"

"I don't. People like to talk about what's hurting them. It takes the edge off the pain sometimes."
When people talk, Archer listens. Sometimes he judges, but mostly he listens, and in listening acknowledges that we all are frail and mistake-prone. In that, he's our ideal self, the one we always tell ourselves we want to be, simultaneously reminding us of our constant, vague wish to be better to those around us and of the risk--the emotional costs--of actually doing so.

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