Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Ross Macdonald (the pen name of Kenneth Millar) created one of the more famous “hardboiled” private detectives in crime fiction, Lew Archer and is justly famous for his contributions to the “hardboiled” genre of crime fiction. Lew Archer starred in eighteen novels and a number of short stories, and with those novels and stories Macdonald took the “hardboiled” novel from its origins and added psychological depth to it. You could argue that Macdonald’s Lew Archer was one of the forerunners of today’s more thoughtful, almost philosophical “hardboiled” detectives. So let’s take a closer look at Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar.
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. 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, one of the people Tom is with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. Now, Archer’s investigating not just a disappearance but two murders. As he tries desperately to find Tom Hillman, Archer uncovers the truth about the Hillman family and how events in the family’s past have led to Tom’s disappearance. In the end, you could say that the past caught up with the present.
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.”
When Archer finds out the identity of Tom’s kidnappers, he also finds out quite a lot about their backgrounds, too. Their families turn out to be important factors in what’s happened to them and to Tom.
Another thread running through this novel is the difference between what’s on the surface and what lies beneath. On the surface, the Hillman family is successful and wealthy. They live in an expensive neighbourhood, they’ve got a fine house, plenty of money, and have been able to send Tom to the best schools. Underneath, though, it’s quite a different matter. Ralph Hillman has been unfaithful more than once. He’s estranged from his son and doesn’t really have a close bond with his wife.
We also see the disparity between what’s on the surface and what’s underneath at Laguna Perdida. On the surface, the school’s there to help the students who are sent there and the goal is to get them back on a safe course in life. In fact, Dr. Sponti tells Archer,
“Most of our boys become quite school-centered in time. We have a rich and varied program for them.”
Beneath the surface, though, the school isn’t the wonderful solution it seems to be. In fact, Tom begged not to be sent there and we find that he bitterly resented his father’s decision to enroll him. One of the other students sarcastically tells Archer,
“Tom Hillerman didn’t get along with his father, either. So he got railroaded here. The Monorail to the Magic Kingdom.”
Related to this is the element of denial and unwillingness to take responsibility that we see throughout this novel. None of the Hillmans accepts any responsibility for the events that happen. Tom blames his parents (and refuses to be accountable for his own actions). Ralph Hillman blames Tom, saying that he’s ungrateful and uncontrollable despite everything his parents have done for him. Elaine Hillman blames her husband, claiming that his lack of support for Tom and his poor parenting are responsible for everything.
Even more destructive than this is the tragic consequence of denial. Tom learns a secret about himself that his parents wouldn’t admit and it’s that secret that’s behind many of the events of the story. We also see how denial about other things has woven itself so deeply into the fabric of this family that they all accept it as a part of dealing with each other. As it turns out, denial, blame and the need to keep up outward appearances play a crucial role in Tom’s disappearance and in the murders that follow.
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. In the end, the murderer is caught, Tom’s disappearance is solved and several important truths are revealed. There isn’t a sense of “happily ever after,” but there is the sense that life will go on. But what’s your view? Have you read The Far Side of the Dollar? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 3 January/Tuesday 4 January – 4:50 From Paddington – Agatha Christie
Monday 10 January/Tuesday 11 January – The Tin Collectors – Stephen J. Cannell
Monday 17 January/Tuesday 18 January – Green For Danger – Christianna Brand