Books

Lost, But Never Found

A drone can peer down from 50 miles up in the sky and spot a tank. A wiretap put on a phone can relay a confidential conversation to an outside party. Deleted text messages are not erased.

Digital malpractices, with curious nautical names such as “spear phishing” and “whaling” can ambush an unsuspecting hard drive.

This is the world we now live in.

In a climate of high-tech crime and crime-solving techniques, where’s the place for private detectives à la Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot? It’s not in the pages of today’s novels for sure.

The era of the refined, pipe-smoking gentleman, who solved mysteries and murders by his sharp logical deduction abilities, is behind us. And the days of the solidly good detective fiction are on a serious decline as well.

I’m glad one such book was hiding on my very bookshelf.

“The Galton Case,” a vintage, hardboiled detective fiction series by Ross Macdonald, featuring private eye Lew Archer, was first published in 1959.

Somehow, when I think of American crime fiction writers, I draw a blank. The only names I associate with that genre are British ones.

The slender paperback, with a blood-red cover was a fast and entertaining read. Set in 1950s California, in the old-money town of Santa Teresa, the story doesn’t begin with a crime. It kicks off with a seemingly futile search.

Nearly 20 years after the scion of the Galton family drops out of sight after a family feud, his mother, now a railroad widow, in the twilight of her years, wants to know what happened to her son.

Around the same time that the family lawyer engages Archer to investigate his disappearance, his own butler is stabbed to death.

That leads him to the decapitated remains of Anthony Galton, who was killed by a San Francisco gang during the depths of the Great Depression. That case nearly falls into his lap only to wriggle out into a thicker plot.

A young man in his early twenties, surfaces, claiming to be Anthony’s son. Promptly reunited with his trusting—and elated—grandmother after a light vetting, his accent and spellings begin to poke holes into his putative identity.

Archer’s services are next hired by the estate physician to do a meticulous background check on John.

This book helped refresh my adoration for old-fashioned detective work with simple tools such as a magnifying glass, a dustpan, a pair of gloves, a robust black telephone, a newspaper punched with holes, enormous teletype machines, disguises, and so on.

My belief is that solving crimes in the 19th and 20th centuries called for a far stronger native intelligence and astuteness and a more expansive mindset than is demanded in today’s push-button era, and which thus, endows it with an irrepressible charm.

Over the years, the cadre of private eyes has shrunk immeasurably. Technology has sloughed off the non-law enforcement crime solvers to obscure corners. But a new breed of (*cough*) pet detectives is fast coming up.

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