According to Macdonald, he and young John Galton in The Galton Case have much in common, including “a sense of displacement, a feeling that, no matter where we were, we were on the alien side of some border. . . . like dubious claimants to a lost inheritance.” Among Macdonald’s notebook jottings about the novel is the statement, “Oedipus angry vs. parents for sending him away into a foreign country,” and he has written that the book “was shaped not in imitation exactly, but in awareness of . . . early Greek models.”

The action begins twenty years after Anthony Galton has dropped out of sight with his pregnant wife, a woman of dubious background whom his wealthy parents rejected. His elderly mother’s attorney hires Lew Archer to solve the mystery, which the detective does easily, largely because of an extraordinary streak of good luck. Having ascertained that Galton became a poet with the pen name “John Brown,” Archer locates the missing man’s remains. This is only the beginning of the story, however, for Archer also happens upon a young man who may be Galton’s son, a twenty-two-year-old calling himself John Brown, Jr., and bearing an uncanny resemblance to his supposed father. Archer suspects that he is an imposter, however, so with one case done, the private eye embarks on another—to establish the identity of John Brown, Jr.

Thus begins an odyssey taking Archer throughout California as well as to Nevada, Michigan, and Canada. Along the way he uncovers a conspiracy to dupe old Mrs. Galton and gain control of her wealth, a plan involving not only assorted gangsters and former convicts but also her trusted attorney. In typical Macdonald fashion, its origins go back decades, so Archer must delve through a tangled morass of tormented lives, along the way suffering a broken jaw and other physical traumas. Peeling away layers of the past, he ascertains that though John Brown, Jr., was part of the original plot, having been hired to play his role because he resembled Anthony Galton, he was not, after all, Theodore Fredericks of Pitt, Ontario: He really was John Galton.

Despite their many unusual twists and unexpected turns, the multiple plots are clearly linked, and they progress logically to their common conclusion. So much of Archer’s success depends upon coincidence and sheer luck, however, that credibility sometimes is...

(The entire section is 978 words.)


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