Book Review: McNally’s Risk

Kunk Fu Zoby Kung Fu Zu12/18/17
By Lawrence Sanders  •  I have now finished the first three volumes of the McNally detective series by Lawrence Sanders, and will give a general critique of the series.

The setting for all three books is Palm Beach, Florida and its environs. While not an exotic location, the locale does play an important role in the books. There are certain characters who appear in all volumes, therefore it will be helpful to introduce them, as they are the structure around which all three books are built.

The hero of the series is Archy McNally, scion of the very successful lawyer Prescott McNally who has a lucrative practice in Palm Beach.  Archy is thirty-six years old, but acts and speaks like a precocious preppy. He has a large vocabulary and equally large libido. Archy was thrown out of Yale Law School for streaking across a concert stage while wearing only a Nixon mask. He lives at his parents’ house, having a third floor suite of rooms to himself. While it may seem strange for a grown man to live at home, there are advantages to this arrangement, such as having a live in cook and housekeeper. But the main plus is the rent, which is nil. To say Archy is found of clothes would be like saying Dracula likes blood. Archy spends a ridiculous amount of money on his togs and likes to wear colors such as mauve and chartreuse. Unlike most Americans today, he likes headgear. From linen golf caps, to felt berets to straw Panamas, Archy has them all. He can be a somewhat devious character.

Prescott McNally is a serious lawyer around seventy years of age. He is very correct in his dealings and is famous for the amount of time he spends mulling over every action. Archy claims he once saw his father spend two minutes considering whether to furl his umbrella clock-wise or counter-clock-wise. Anyone who met Prescott would assume he came from the gentry, and Prescott does everything he can to encourage this idea. He has played the role so well and so long that he probably believes it himself. In truth, Prescott’s father was a vaudevillian comic who had a keen nose for investing and purchased large tracts of land in Florida before prices skyrocketed. He was able to send a very clever and diligent son to the best schools which enabled him to move up the social scale.  I find it particularly pleasing that every night after supper, Prescott retires to his study and reads Dickens.

Archy’s mother is a lovely woman, but somewhat ditsy. She spends most of her time in her garden speaking to her plants. She appears to have a particularly close relationship with begonias. Nevertheless, she has a keen understanding of people and lets Archy have the benefit of her advice in this area, from time to time.

Al Rogoff is a detective with the Palm Beach police department. He and Archy frequently cross paths in investigations. They have a history of helping each other solve cases. Al Rogoff pretends to be a boor in order to keep from being razzed by his fellow policemen, but he actually loves the fine arts and goes to the ballet when on holiday in New York.

Lady Cynthia Horowitz is an aging dame who has been through several husbands and has come out richer after cutting the ties with each.  While no beauty, she still has a fantastic figure although she is approaching seventy. She has never been shy about using sex to get what she wants, which can often just be sex. Worth around $100 million, she gives some of the best parties in Palm Beach and is generally up to something questionable.

Connie Garcia is Lady Cynthia’s social secretary and Archy’s on-again, off-again lover. Connie came to Florida in the late 1970s with the Mariel Boatlift. She is petit, shapely and has glossy long black hair. She is a wonderful source for local gossip. She looks good in just about anything, including the straw boater which she took off Archy one day.

There are several specific locations which are repeatedly visited in the books.

The first spot is the McNally manse. This is a good sized home on Ocean Boulevard with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a very stately home, which McNally Sr. has decorated in a style which would lead visitors to believe the McNallys are an old family with centuries of tradition and wealth behind them. In line with this idea of having tradition, Prescott, his wife and Archy meet every day for cocktail hour during which Prescott will mix classic martinis and share them with the family. After this they will have supper, which is prepared by a live-in couple, both of whom are excellent cooks.

The second place is the McNally office building. This edifice is completely different from the neo-classical building one would expect Prescott McNally to house his offices in. It is a glass and stainless steel cube with underground parking. Prescott was convinced by his architect of the greater investment potential of this type of building, thus he Ok’d the project. He may be a fuddy-duddy, but he is a realist when it comes to money. Archy’s office is the smallest in the building and it has no window. Archy is convinced he has been placed here to show the other employees that there is no nepotism in the McNally firm.

The third local is the Pelican Club, which is housed in a somewhat rundown building near the airport. The Pelican Club is a private dining club, which was founded by Archy and some friends. It was not very successful at first, but Archy was able to bring in the Pettibone family to run the place and it has been on a roll ever since.

Archy works for McNally and Son. Many mistake him for a lawyer, but he is in fact the head of and only member of the “Discrete Inquiries” department. Archy is not a detective in the sense of Phillip Marlow or Sam Spade, rather he is used by his father for certain jobs which may be required by the regular clients of McNally and Son. Sometimes the reader gets the idea that Prescott invented the position to give his somewhat hare-brained son an income and out of trouble. It works as far as the income goes, but Archy manages to get into a fair amount of trouble.

The formula for all three books is much the same. Prescott instructs Archy to look into something for a client. While doing this, someone ends up dead. For reasons of proximity, Archy runs into Al Rogoff and they start exchanging information. In between, Archy becomes acquainted with some beautiful woman whom he beds. Toward the end of the book, it becomes clear that Archy’s original inquiry is related to the murder, but it is not possible to link them together and get the bad guy unless Archy puts himself in some type of danger. Of course, in the end Archy comes out with nary a scratch and is praised by Prescott for his work.

This type of writing sounds very simple, but it is not easy to bring off successfully, as Sanders does. Such a book is very easy to read, but such simplicity takes a lot of work. Few popular authors these days can write as well as Sanders did. He had a wonderful vocabulary, and was extremely well read. I particularly enjoyed the various literary and historical references which Sanders made throughout his stories.

We are not talking about great literature, but each mystery is plausible and the characters are not idiots. These days, those two points themselves are unusual.  If someone is looking for a cogent, yet relaxing, read I can recommend the McNally series. You will enjoy it while reading it and forget about it shortly thereafter. It’s just fun.


Kung Fu Zu is a conservative prognosticator who has traveled widely and lived outside the United States. He reads detective novels because he always wanted to be the third Hardy Boy, but the book version not the 70’s TV guys with big hair. • (133 views)

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15 Responses to Book Review: McNally’s Risk

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Archy’s taste in clothing makes me think of a 60s song about a husband with an interesting get-up he wears, and even tried to wear instead of a regular uniform when he enlisted. “He wanted tan shoes with pink shoelaces, a polka dot vest, and man oh man. He wanted tan shoes with pink shoelaces, and a big Panama with a purple hat band.”

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I have finished the fourth book in the McNally series and there is a noticeable drop-off in the quality.

    Sander’s can still come up with a good story but I believe “McNally’s Trial” displays some of the weaknesses which show up in most “series” books.

    Hearing about the habits and quirks of a story’s characters can be entertaining. But after four books, listening to these same habits and quirks can become tedious. Does one really need to again hear about the family tradition of having martinis before supper, followed by a detailed description of the evening’s repast and closed with a recital of Archy’s journey to his suite of rooms where he has an English Oval cigarette (third or fourth of the day) with a marc?

    Worse than the above, is the introduction of a new character named Binky Watrous. Binky is a completely useless character who Archy has befriended. In a fit of desperation, Binky approachs Archy for help in getting him some type of employment so as not to be disinherited by his aunt the “Duchess.”

    For some inexplicable reason, Archy takes him on as an assistant. This is totally unbelievable.

    Perhaps these weaknesses are due to the fact that Sanders writes each book as if the reader has not seen any of the previous novels in the series. From this point of view, the writer must assume that the reader knows nothing of Archy’s past and repeat much which has been hashed out in McNally volumes 1, 2, and 3. Maybe Sanders understands this weakness and tries to make up for this repetitiveness by creating a new character in Binky.

    That being said, I may be wrong and Sanders might just have wanted to add a few pages of filler to the book so he reach a minimum of 300 pages, as per contract.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Well, the Nero Wolfe books were full of the characters’ personality quirks — though also plenty of occasions when someone like Nero Wolfe himself would break his habits (such as almost never going out — there were certainly plenty of exceptions over the years). There were also frequent descriptions of the good (and not so good) meals they had — but then Wolfe and his chef were gourmets. I find those interesting, as I do the food in Dianne Mott Davidson’s mysteries about a caterer involved in murder cases (she also ends up marrying a homicide detective — something Jill Churchill also did in one of her domestic mystery series).

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I have read all the Nero Wolfe books and do not recall the same type of repetitiveness I encountered in the fourth McNally book.

        Where the McNally books excel are in story (they are always believable) Archy’s use of vocabulary and his sometimes obscure historical references and aphorisms which always fit the situation at hand. Sanders was clearly a very well educated/read man.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ll definitely keep the McNally books in mind.

      I’m on my second C.S. Harris book with the Sebastian St. Cyr character. The first one was “Where the Dead Lie” which was so-so. The one I’m reading now is “When Falcons Fall” (the one with Lucien Bonaparte). This second one (I’m 60% into it) is okay. It sprinkled with details of England. I keep referring to maps to see which village he is in as I go through this.

      His wife (Hero…strange name for a girl) is getting more involved in this one. Her passion is interviewing the downtrodden about all the bad stuff that the upper classes have done to them. In this one, along with helping with the murder(s), Hero is documenting the effects of various “Enclosure Acts” which closed the commons to people by requiring that land be fenced if they were going to own it. Most, of course, couldn’t afford a fence. Apparently the upper classes took most of the good property. The commoners, without the means to make a living (grazing sheep, harvesting peat), either moved on or starved.

      Were the English aristocracy bastards? No doubt to some extent they were. And apparently the various enclosure acts had been happening piecemeal for hundreds of years. Instead of Parliament passing it all at once, individual Lords, etc., could get Parliament to pass a bill for just their own community. It sounds pretty selfish and brutal but then I don’t have all the details.

      As for Sebastian, he has few habits and quirks other than good vision and hearing. I don’t know why this comes up, but it does. He can see pretty good in the dark. I’d say the plot is okay (still playing out). The strength is in getting a lot of history of England sprinkled in here and there.

      And the writing style is advanced and competent. Still, if not for the winter months, I don’t know that I’ve normally have the patience for these kinds of books.

      These series books are all prone to being factory-made. I’m sure that’s part of what you’re encountering, Mr. Kung. We’ve all seen that in movies and TV shows. Instead of doing something original you just tick off the “character” points. This is one reason almost all movie sequels are bad. Nothing new, just checking off the cliches on the list. For series books, that seems enough perhaps to satisfy the publisher and the undiscriminating reader.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I can understand sticking to a formula which worked in the past. But I wonder if authors and directors don’t often sell their audiences short by shoveling up the same old stuff, instead of stretching things just a bit and going in a different direction.

        Perhaps I am naive’.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          You and I and others here have spent a good deal of time online. There’s nothing unique about that. In fact, it’s the norm.

          One thing that prompted this site is that I found myself becoming a cliche. I was repeating the same schtick over and over elsewhere. Do any of us ever really escape our personalities? Short of alcohol or drugs (or maybe Facebook), I don’t think so.

          But we can improvise. We can try to stretch ourselves a little. None of us here want to be a walking, talking cliche. It pays to branch out. I should do more myself. And certainly one reason I’m reading a few mystery novels is to do just that. I like being fairly well read.

          But what do you do if you’re a major studio and see mediocre (even horrible) films making hundreds of millions? You have to be reminded constantly of P.T. Barnum. Why not just offer up least-common-denominator cliches if people are eating that up? Anything else would be a risk.

          So I think a lot of the crap is just risk-aversion. Still, with this latest fake Star Wars we see the religion of Progressivism now replacing and showing itself more powerful than even The Force. This is not news to conservatives. But it is startling that even movie religions are no match for these flakey little “nice” fascists who wish to erase all that came before them. We are to stand in awe as the sun shines brightly out of their asses.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Hero was the name of the girl in the Greek myth of Hero and Leander — though of course this was in classical Greek, not modern English. That’s the one about the lovers living across a lake from each other, and one day Leander tried to cross over, was caught in a storm, and drowned. The Greeks, being more sentimental than Amerinds, didn’t name the lake Lake Stupid, but instead immortalized them in myth.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          That names comes off as wildly pretentious in the novel. But her father is something like the second or third most powerful man in government so maybe pretenses must be maintained. This is part of a whole series of books, and I’m reading them quite out of order. It’s possible her name origin would have been dealt with. Still, what an odd name for a girl. It’s like giving a guy the name of “Meat Tenderizer.” Yeah, it’s a common thing. But should it be a proper name?

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I just finished “McNally’s Caper” and it was better than “McNally’s Trial.”

    Archy is as amorous as ever. In fact, the women just keep throwing themselves at him. Being a good “detective”, he uses such circumstances to further his investigations.

    Unfortunately, there is one major flaw at the very end of the book, which detracts from its overall quality.

    Nevertheless, if one likes light fare similar to cotton candy, one could do worse than spending a few hours with “McNally’s Caper.”

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I wonder how much Archie resembles Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s assistant and amanuensis. He certainly had an eye for the ladies, especially Lily Rowan. And he does make use of that talent for his own detective work.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Archy McNally and Archie Goodwin are very different characters. McNally is less serious and promiscuous. He also uses a lot more big words and literary allusions than Goodwin.

        If things got difficult, I would rather have Goodwin at my side than McNally.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          As a big fan (literally, I weight about as much as the later Wolfe, when he had lost some weight) of Nero Wolfe, I would certainly appreciate your preference. Of course, Wolfe does use a lot of big words and literary (and historical) allusions. In one of the books, Inspector Cramer noted that Wolfe thought he was a king — after all, he was named for one. Wofe replied that Nero was an emperor, not a king.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            As a reader, I somehow find it more fitting for Nero Wolfe to use big words and obscure historical allusions than Archy McNally, not that I mind McNally doing so.

            That being said, the McNally character is like Baked Alaska and Goodwin is like a good prime rib.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I once made a similar observation back in the late 1980s when Anne McCaffrey had an introduction to her dragonrider series and Isaac Asimov had a similar volume for his Foundation series. I saw Asimov’s work as like a puff pastry — very tasty but not much content. McCaffrey, by contrast, was very solid.

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