Like many other authors and artists, Ross Macdonald, a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar, was heavily influenced by his own personal experiences and those experiences and observations were frequently bleak. Macdonald’s writing style has been favorably compared to his predecessors in the genre characterized by so-called “hard-boiled” private detectives, often working in the morally ambivalent area of Los Angeles County, namely, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. His novels featuring private detective Lew Archer fit neatly into that genre, and Macdonald enjoyed commercial and, somewhat rare for the private eye genre, critical success, especially for Black Money.
Macdonald had had a difficult childhood. His father abandoned the family, and the poverty and occasional violence with which he lived would remain a feature of his writing until his death. As with Hammett and Chandler, his prose was straightforward. More than his predecessors, however, Macdonald lent his stories and characters a gravitas usually missing from such novels. His education – he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan following a stint in the Navy – combined with his dark demeanor and childhood predilection for the stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne – all contributed to the bleak vision Macdonald had of life. His dissertation topic was a psychological criticism of Samuel Coleridge, and his interest in psychology is present in Black Money.
The main characters in Black Money, besides the private investigator, Archer, are his wealthy overweight client, Peter Jamieson, Jamieson’s former girlfriend, Virginia “Ginny” Fablon, and Ginny’s new lover, a Frenchman with a mysterious and troubling past, Felix Cervantes, alias “Martel.” The theme of broken families – a reflection of Macdonald’s own past – is present in this novel, with Cervantes’ playing the role of interloper in the “family” structure to which Jamieson once aspired. Macdonald’s writing style allows for artistic flourishes when the subject is scenery, as evident in the following description:
“I drove back into the foothills. The slopes were still green from the rains. The white and purple flowers on the brush gave out a smell like the slow breath of sunlight.”
Like Hammett and Chandler, however, his dialogue is concise and to the point, especially when Archer is conversing with – or, more accurately, interrogating – his own client, as with the following scene in the book’s opening when Archer is first introduced to Jamieson:
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said to Peter Jamieson. “Also this coffee is good.”
“Yes, they make good coffee.” He sipped dolefully at his malted . . ."
Archer is frank and to the point to the extent that he is frequently insulting, including to his own client. The theme of Black Money, a term used in the world of financial crimes to refer to money attained through illicit means, is the prevalence and unrelenting moral, social and professional corruption that laid at the heart of Los Angeles County and its surrounding communities and at the heart of the great wealth Archer observes on a daily basis but of which he will never be a part. As Archer delves deeper into the background of Cervantes/Martel, he uncovers hidden secrets, including murder and the fate of Ginny’s deceased father, Roy, who was believed to have committed suicide but whose death turned about to be the result of foul play.