Cover image of "The Galton Case," a classic detective novel

Reading as much as I do, it’s highly unusual for me to come across a book I find so riveting that I lose track of time. But this masterpiece of detective fiction did that to me. Strangely, I had read the novel nearly half a century ago, when I was in the process of devouring all 18 of the Lew Archer tales. But Ross MacDonald’s plot was so fiendishly complex, and the book was stuffed with so many startling surprises, that I couldn’t possibly have remembered them all. Thus, “I (literally) couldn’t put it down.” Here’s a classic detective novel that fully merits the label.

A complex case with millions at stake

In The Galton Case, an attorney in Santa Teresa summons Lew Archer to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy woman’s son. (Santa Teresa is MacDonald’s lightly disguised version of Santa Barbara, California, where he lived for decades.) Tony Galton vanished 20 years earlier, in 1936, at the age of 22. Now, as she nears death, old Maria Galton wants to reconcile with her long-lost son. Archer regards the case as a waste of time and money, but he’s got plenty of time, and he won’t turn down the money.

The Galton Case (Lew Archer #8 of 18) by Ross MacDonald (1959) 255 pages ★★★★★

Photo of Downtown Santa Barbara in the 1950s, where some of the action takes place in this classic detective novel
Downtown Santa Barbara, California, in the 1950s, where Maria Galton’s lawyer, Gordon Sable, would have had his office. Image: Downtown Santa Barbara

Confusion abounds in this classic detective novel

Archer quickly concludes that Tony Galton was murdered two decades ago. But this is no whodunit despite the fact that several suspects surface. And when a man working for Gordon Sable, Maria Galton’s lawyer, is murdered, Archer is convinced there is a link between the two cases. Then a young man with a striking resemblance to Tony Galton turns up, and in short order the old lady accepts him as her grandson. But is he? Or is he a lookalike con man out to grab the Galton fortune? Even worse, is he the agent of a conspiracy hatched by the mob? As Archer pursues the links to Reno, Nevada, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and a small town in Ontario, Canada, more and more complications crop up. And in the end Archer will himself be surprised by how the case is resolved.

A well-read hardboiled detective with wit and finesse

Ross MacDonald is widely regarded as a disciple of Raymond Chandler, and Archer is typically described as a hardboiled detective in the mold of Philip Marlowe. But, unlike Marlowe, and other sleuths of the genre, Archer is not a tough guy who always packs a pistol and is quick to use his fists. Lew Archer is a private detective and a former cop, but he’s well read and prone to philosophical reflection on the human condition. Yes, he’s a bit of a wise guy, too, but you never forget that the man is probably smarter than everyone else in the room.

About the author

Photo of Ross MacDonald, author of this classic detective novel
Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar). Image: The Globe and Mail

Ross MacDonald (1915-83) was the pen name of Canadian-American mystery author Kenneth Millar. In addition to the 18 Lew Archer novels, MacDonald wrote six other mystery novels and two works of nonfiction as well as four collections of short stories. His work was widely considered to reflect the influence of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, to whom he is frequently compared. MacDonald held an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and a PhD in literature from the University of Michigan. He was married for nearly 40 years to Margaret Millar, with whom he had a daughter. They lived in Santa Barbara, California.

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