“The Price of Murder” continued the string of crime novels that MacDonald put out in 1956 and 1957, following Death Trap and You Only Live Once, but with a darker, bleaker feel to it. In it, MacDonald used his technique of alternating points of view between chapters, a technique he used quite well in Murder in the Wind and the Damned. Here, he focuses on a handful of characters, Lee Bronson, Johnny Keefler (the one-armed parole officer), Danny Bronson (Lee’s wayward brother), Paul Verney (the corrupt lawyer), and Lucille Bronson.
Lee Bronson had grown up on the wrong side of town (“the Sink”) with as much bad luck as he could muster. Every guy his mother married ended up in a bad situation. Lee managed to go straight and taught English at a small junior college in Brookton. His brother, Danny, was out on parole – again. Lee just wanted to live his life and the only joy he got was from teaching.
His marriage he considered: “A perfumed trap. A silky and membranous and pneumatic little trap. A trap named Lucille.” He met her when they were young and held out promises of working on the great American novel, a project never completed and that would never be completed. She resented that this was the pinnacle of his success. She had learned growing up that she was a great prize and believed that she would inevitably be given all the great things by someone. As we later learn, Lee had been blinded by her magical face and body and “had read into her all the things he wanted to find.” “He could not believe that a face and body of such perfection could contain a third-class mind.”
Danny did not come out of the Sink other than scarred. He was a great hoodlum, always working on his next score.
Johnny Keefler, the one-armed parole officer, had once been a good kid, raised by his uncle. Local toughs though knifed his uncle when he confronted a group of shoplifters and, Keefler’s reward for ratting out who did it, was torture in an alley beyond belief and a vow to the heaven’s above to exact revenge. Which he did over the years as a police officer and later, after being shot in the line of duty, as a parole officer. Keefler was singleminded in his goal of exacting what he considered justice.
MacDonald weaves these complex characters into a tight little plot where all things go wrong as they generally do in these types of novels. You get the sense in reading this one that he combined his technique of creating complex backstories with his writing of a tight succinct crime novel. But don’t be confused into thinking this is some trip through literary highlights as there are explosions of violence in this novel that will make your head spin, particularly as the story reaches its climax.