The novel as a whole is moody, its story a dark (and very sad)one of sexual depravity, psychological cruelty, a deliberate red herring or two, and of course, murder(s). To some extent I felt novel had too many characters, and it was hard to keep track of all the motivations, not to mention Archer's frenetic movements between Mexico, California, and Nevada. But with MacDonald you get a master of character creation who possesses excellent descriptive powers. He can create a memorable character, with a history in the space of a paragraph or two. He's amazing. And his scenes can very suggestive, very dark. In one, a little girl looking at a comic book suggests (possible) crimes of a much greater scale. But MacDonald doesn't dwell on it. He leaves you hanging, effectively haunting you for the rest of the book. You never know for sure, but it's that not knowing that shows MacDonald at his best. Within the scope of the novel, it's a small moment, but MacDonald cares about those small moments as he builds a whole.
If there is convolution in Zebra Striped Hearse, it's a small sin blown away by the fine descriptive powers of a master.
Of course, you know that what appears to be a simple case for Archer is going to develop into a complicated skein of emotions and events including murder. You can also guess that there will be tragic overtones in the matter.
Ross MacDonald is deservedly recognized as one of the elite of the hard boiled school. While there are resembances to Hammett, Chandler and even Parker to an extent, he is unique. While he presents you with a puzzle, he also makes you care for his characters. He may have you disliking and distrusting some of the characters such as the father and the boy friend in this book, and then have you caring in one way or another for them.
If you haven't discovered Ross MacDonald yet, it's time you did. And if you have, you don't even need to be reading this review. (Although I'm glad you are)
I have to say that I didn't find Archer an especially entrancing character. He's a fairly standard fictional detective: world weary, rough when he needs to be, emotionally tender, all topped off with a wide streak of compassion and smart mouth. As he runs around interviewing everyone, patterns start to emerge, people are first open with him and provide him with a morsel of information or two (enough to keep the plot going), then they inevitably turn on him and refuse to tell the whole truth. After a while, it just started to feel too contrived. Another irritant in the narrative is Archer's totally unrealistic ability to more or less use local police as his lackeys. One just doesn't get enough sense of his charisma, why all these cops are willing to tip him off, and why all these dames keep sending him vibes. I suppose that's why noir often seems to work better for me on film, you get to see that charisma, plus the overly complex plots get streamlined-usually with much better results. Certainly, in the case of this story, the hyper-Freudian motives that emerge at the end are hardly satisfying.
Still, if you just can't live without your hard-boiled detectives, Archer certainly fits the mold enough to satisfy fanatics of the genre. It also may be that if one reads the series from the beginning, he emerges as a more fully realized character than he does in this single entry.
And the ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE is one of MacDonald's best, continuing to feel shockingly contemporary as a perfect literary portrait of the Golden State and its fascinating dark side.