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.