The Galton Case (1959) was Macdonald’s favorite, a novel pivotal in the genre and in his career. It manifests irony and physical toughness, but the it is ultimately psychological: the relation between the apparent plot and the revealed plot is that of adulthood to childhood, an exploration of the conscious and unconscious desires of parents and their children for love, success, and posterity.
The apparent plot is tough enough. Detective Lew Archer is hired by lawyer Gordon Sable to search for Anthony Galton, the long-lost son of Maria Galton, who is in her 90s and dying. Besides Sable, the moneyed matriarch is surrounded by Dr. August Howell, his daughter Sheila, and Cassie Hildreth, a companion who knew Galton. Archer’s task is “to find my prodigal son for me,” as Maria says. 1
A second plot line concerns Gordon Sable, his unbalanced wife Alice, and their impolite “servant” Peter Culligan. When the later is stabbed to death by a stranger who then accosts Archer and steals his car, the detective enters this case too. As he flies north on the Galton case, he works out a connection between the two plots: it’s in a letter to Culligan from his ex-wife hinting at an unspoken event in “L. Bay.” There is also a poem “Luna Bay” written by young Tony Galton under the pseudonym of John Brown.
In San Francisco poet Chad Bolling (a parody of a Beat Generation poet — Macdonald (right) was no fan of the Beats — gives Archer information on Tony, and in Redwood City Culligan’s ex-wife supplies some details on Galton’s death. In Luna Bay, Archer and Bolling find Dr. Dineen and through him John Brown, a likable young man who claims to be Maria’s grandson. Archer vacillates between a belief in him and a suspicion that Brown is a talented imposter. Archer calls in Sable, and Luna Bay’s Deputy Sheriff Mungan helps them advance both plot lines. While John Brown returns to Santa Teresa with the lawyer, Archer pursues Roy and Tommy Lemberg, who owned the car in the Culligan murder. This takes him to Reno, where mobsters beat him severely. By the time he recovers, John Brown’s performance as a Galton, including his romance with Sheila Howell, is so slick that her doctor father hires Archer to unmask him.
The revealed story presents what Edward Margolies has called ” a kind of bourgeois fairy tale.”2 John Brown (a.k.a. Tony Galton) is actually Theo Fredericks, a Canadian boy born in poverty. Older, he learned from Culligan, a lodger at his mother’s boarding house, that his step-father murdered his real father. Theo stabs the imposter and flees with Culligan, setting up a precedent for the latter’s murder and an Oedipus motif that Macdonald was conscious of employing. When Culligan is arrested in the U.S., the boy is raised by a kind high school teacher and becomes John Lindsay, an accomplished actor at the U. of Michigan. On graduation he falls back in with Culligan, who sets him up to be “discovered” as the lost Galton heir, with the connivance of Sable and Reno mobsters.
There are a number of tangential plot elements, involving auto theft, Nevada gangsters and Alice Sable’s infidelity and gambling debts; lawyer Sable is improbably revealed to be Culligan’s killer. But the novel’s thematic climax is the simultaneous discovery by Archer and John Brown that “in posing as John Galton, John Brown was in fact impersonating himself,” as Bernard Schopen writes. 3 The question of identity and what creates it are carefully worked into the fabric of the novel from the first page, when Archer’s elevator to Sable’s office creates “the impression that after years of struggle you were rising effortlessly to your natural level, one of the chosen” (1). These “levels” are not only portrayed in the phases of Theo/John’s life, but by Archer’s travels from the Galton’s aristocratic manor to Sable’s house to San Francisco’s slum hotels. At the bottom is a town called Pitt, Ontario, modeled on Macdonald’s hometown. Its poverty is a sociological evil, escape from which is necessary by whatever means, in order to build a life. In the case of John Brown/Tony Galton/Theo Fredericks, it leads to a “fairytale” belief that he is “a prince in the poorhouse” who is really “a king’s son” (194). Only his step-father’s suicide, completing the Oepidus’ motif, allows young Galton to see, in the final pages, that he actually is who he has impersonated.
The Galton Case is the cornerstone of the psychological detective novel, in which questions of personal identity are paramount and the hard-boiled quality resides as much in the pain of personal truth as in the physical costs of their discovery.
A note of interest: the novel appeared just as the author was trying to distinguish himself from Florida detective writer John MacDonald, hence the “John Ross Macdonald.” After this volume, he would always be “Ross Macdonald.”
1 Ross Macdonald, The Galton Case (New York: Knopf, 1959); Reprinted, New York: Warner Books, 1990), 3. 2 Edward Margolies, Which Way Did He Go? The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes and Ross Macdonald (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982), 80. 3 Bernard Schopen, Ross Macdonald (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 85.