Created by Ross Macdonald
(pseud. of Kenneth Millar, AKA John Ross Macdonald, John Macdonald)
"I hear voices crying in the night, and I go see what's the matter."
-- Lew Archer
The greatest P.I. series ever written?
LEW ARCHER stands with the Continental Op, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as one of the few P.I's who actually define the genre. What makes Archer unique among this group is not just the fact that the books are a sustained narrative spanning three decades, but that they also made the genre relevant to a changing society. Where Hammett revolutionised crime writing and Chandler romanticised it - Macdonald called his predecessor a "slumming angel" - Macdonald, by his own account, "...gradually siphoned off the aura of romance and made room for a complete social realism". Lew Archer made possible all who followed.
Named after Sam Spade's murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon, the early Archer books, beginning with the first, The Moving Target (1949), are set in a Chandleresque milieu of rich men, starlets, gamblers and gangsters. Both Archer and Marlowe are alike in that they cast a weary eye over the corruption and greed of Southern California. Both are men with a strong sense of what is right and wrong which, apart from anything else, has led them to leaving their previous law enforcement jobs on principle.
"The money wasn't the main thing. I couldn't stand podex osculation. And I didn't like dirty politics. Anyway, I didn't quit, I was fired," Archer explained in The Moving Target.
The Drowning Pool (1950) begins, like The Big Sleep, with Archer calling on a wealthy invalid. Like Marlowe, Archer has to make do on his own. Mind you, this is an occupational hazard: Archer admits that "Everybody hates detectives and dentists. We hate them back."
The early books in the series -- up to The Doomsters (1958) -- are 'classic' P.I texts in structure and content. They remind us that Macdonald was an accomplished crime writer (as Kenneth Millar) and had already written one great book, Blue City, in 1947 (one of the four Chet Gordon books which are well worth a look). Archer's investigations take him to the Southern California that exposes the lie of the American Dream. Towns like Oasis in The Way Some People Die (1951) where the lights from the town are "..lost and little in the great nocturnal spaces". Archer's social commentary on these places is both critical and despairing; as in The Drowning Pool, where he observed that "There's nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure."
The Ivory Grin (1952) takes as its starting point the arrival in Archer's office of a woman who is not all she seems and who wants Archer to find a missing servant who has been indiscreet. What would nowadays be a cliché still reads as fresh and exciting today. Archer heads off to Bella City What follows - murder, femme fatales, cops, sleazy motels - takes the book to its conclusion (incidentally one of the most bizarre and macabre conclusions to a missing person's case you're ever likely to read) and at times reads like a 40's black and white noir movie.
Both The Doomsters and The Galton Case (1959) were pivotal to the series and marked a significant change of direction. The Doomsters had, Macdonald felt, "..marked a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition". With The Galton Case it became clear what this meant. Archer became "the mind of the novel...a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge". In it a lost son surfaces out of a brutal, murderous past. The building of a new shopping centre uncovers a skull-less skeleton of the idealist and radical John Galton. In turn his son reappears and Archer exposes his true identity. In doing so he brings to consciousness the failings of past lives and their impact on the present.
From The Ferguson Affair (1960) through to Black Money (1966), the focus of the books became more 'psychological'. The past is inescapable and Archer searches people's lives to bring about a kind of resolution to their past failings which have returned to torment their children. The suppression of the truth leads inexorably to crisis. A missing person or object triggers the investigation and a multitude of repressed secrets surface. Murders pile up as the pretence of the past is protected. Archer exposes the illusions people have to maintain to continue with their lives. The conclusion to the narratives both 'solve' the crime and brings to realisation a 'truth' which reverberates back through the book.
Black Money, in fact, feels like something of a watershed in the series. It is modelled on (or a homage to) Macdonald's favourite book, The Great Gatsby. It lampoons the American Dream and how it can go horribly wrong. Pedro Domingo - an outcast and servant at the affluent Tennis Club because he is black - returns from Panama with an invented past and a lot of money. Domingo's Dream is a dangerous one and involves mob money (the only one of the latter Archer books to involve the mob). Archers has no time for the society he has to investigate and is critical of it: "When you have money to live on, and a nice house, and good weather most of the time, and still your life goes wrong - well, who can you blame?". There is a pervading sense of alienation and even exhaustion towards the end of the book. For Arches the message is clear: "Never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own".
Archer's pessimism in Black Money takes a different slant in other books such as The Goodbye Look (1969): "How can a man help breaking the law if he don't have money to live on". However, Archer tries to explain what he sees - and this, by extension, is what the reader has to explain - he always has compassion for those he investigates: "I have a secret passion for mercy. But justice is what keeps happening to people."
Both The Underground Man (1971) and Sleeping Beauty (1973) have a central ecological concern which is strongly symbolic in its sombre image of the death of nature. Sleeping Beautyopens with Archer glimpsing in mid-air a huge oil slick and an oil platform that protrudes "...like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill blood".
If the endings to his investigations often leave Archer bewildered and confused - take for example the scary conclusion to The Chill -- the series comes to some kind of end with The Blue Hammer (1976). It injects an unexpected note of optimism in Archers relationship with a young journalist Betty Jo: "After a while I could see the steady blue pulse in her temple, the beating of the silent hammer which meant that she was alive. I hoped that the blue hammer would never stop". There are echo's here of how Chandler left Marlowe in Playback which, perhaps, brings the whole series full circle. In the end if we haven't got an optimism for the future, what have we got?
Ross Macdonald achieved considerable literary acclaim in his own lifetime. He held a Ph.D. in English and his writing was studied at university. Whilst, perhaps, Archer personifies the P.I. as an outsider, Macdonald himself was not at ease with his surroundings. He was an American raised in Canada, but living in California. His father left him as, in later life, his own daughter did.
Macdonald once admitted that The Galton Case was "..a story roughly shaped on my own life, transformed and simplified, into a kind of legend". In trying to resolve some of these issues in his books, Macdonald hasn't just given us one of the great P.I. series but also on of the most enduring.
The Lew Archer series should be regarded, at the very least, as central texts in the genre.
- "It was a Friday night. I was tooling home from the Mexican border in a light blue convertible and a dark blue mood."-- "Gone Girl"
- There are certain families whose members should all live in different towns -- different states, if possible -- and write each other letters once a year."-- The Blue Hammer
- "I lay awake and watched her face emerging in the slow dawn. After a while, I could see the steady blue pulse in her temple, the beating of the silent hammer that meant she was still alive. I hoped that the blue hammer would never stop."-- Lew offers up a silent, post-coital prayer, The Blue Hammer
- "When there's trouble in a family, it tends to show up in the weaqkest member. And all the other members of the family know that. They make allowances for the one in trouble... because they know they're implicated themselves."-- Sleeping Beauty
- "As a man gets older, if he knows what is good for him,, the women he likes are getting older too. The trouble is that most of them are married."-- The Zevra-Striped Hearse
- "It was some time since I had gone to sleep in the same room with a girl. Of course, the room was large and reasonably well-lighted, and the girl had other things than me on her mind."-- The Blue Hammer
FROM THE PEANUT GALLERY
- "Yes, the Archer novels by Macdonald are strikingly similar in terns of theme and plot....he essentially wrote one book over and over again, but, as others have pointed out, it was a good book....In the end, you read Macdonald because of the beauty and care put forth in the writing itself, and his insights into human nature. I agree that the The Galton Case is the exemplary Macdonald novel, but you would be hard-pressed to find a bad one in the bunch."-- George Pelecanos, on Rara-Avis, March 29, 2001.
- "There's definitely something dark and sad and fragile about Macdonald's best work.".
- "I never saw Brian Keith's Archer and that sounds like an intriguing bit of casting (Speaking of casting:I recently learned that, in 1954, Blake Edwards wrote and directed an unsoldMike Hammer pilot. Playing Hammer: Brian Keith. Can you think of another actor who could play both Hammer and Archer?)"
- "The Chill... is one of the most perfectly plotted mystery novels in the canon, the kind of book that causes a dropping of the reader’s jaw over its final pages. Macdonald has always suffered a little (a lot) from the perception that he somehow worked in [Raymond] Chandler’s shadow. In fact, at the risk of being heretical, Macdonald was a much better novelist than Chandler.”-- John Connolly, as part of The Rap Sheet's One Book Project
- as John Macdonald
- The Moving Target (1949) ...Buy this book...Kindle it!
- as John Ross Macdonald
- The Drowning Pool (1950) ..Buy this book
- The Way Some People Die (1951) ...Buy this book
- The Ivory Grin (1952; AKA Marked for Murder) ...Buy this book...Kindle it!
- Find a Victim (1954) ...Buy this book...Kindle it!
- as Ross Macdonald
- The Barbarous Coast (1956) ..Buy this book
- The Doomsters (1958) ..Buy this book
- The Galton Case (1959)..Buy this book
- The Wycherly Woman (1961) ..Buy this book...Kindle it!
- The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) .Buy this book
- The Chill (1964) ..Buy this book
- The Far Side of the Dollar (1965) ..Buy this book
- Black Money (1966) ..Buy this book
- The Instant Enemy (1968) ...Buy this book
- The Goodbye Look (1969) ..Buy this book...Kindle it!
- The Underground Man (1971) ..Buy this book...Kindle it!
- Sleeping Beauty (1973)..Buy this book...Kindle it!
- The Blue Hammer (1976) ..Buy this book...Kindle it!
- as Kenneth Millar
- "Find the Woman" (June 1946, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine)
- "The Bearded Lady" (October 1948, American Magazine)
- "The Imaginary Blonde" (February 1953, Manhunt; aka "Gone Girl")
- as John Ross Macdonald
- "The Guilty Ones" (May 1953, Manhunt; aka"The Sinister Habit")
- "The Beat-Up Sister" (October 1953, Manhunt; aka "The Suicide")
- "Guilt-Edged Blonde" (January 1954, Manhunt)
- "Wild Goose Chase" (July 1954, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine)
- as Ross Macdonald
- "Midnight Blue" (October 1960, Ed McBain's Mystery Magazine)
- "The Sleeping Dog" (April 1965, Argosy)