Lew Archer

Created by Ross Macdonald
Pseudonym.  of Kenneth Millar, aka John Ross Macdonald, John Macdonald
(1915-83)

“I hear voices crying in the night, and I go see what’s the matter.”
— Lew Archer

The greatest P.I. series ever written?

Probably.

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, 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 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 explains.

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 (the author’s first four books, all standalones, which precede The Moving Target are all well worth a look).

But Archer was something else.

His 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 Wycherly Woman (1961)  through to Black Money (1966), the focus of the books became increasingly ‘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). Archer 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 Archer 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 doesn’t have money to live on”. However, Archer tries to explain what he sees – and this, by extension, is what the reader has to understand – Archer 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 Beauty opens with Archer glimpsing from 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 Archer’s 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 echoes here of how Chandler left Marlowe in Playback which, perhaps, brings the whole series full circle. In the end if we don’t have optimism about 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.

THE EVIDENCE

  • “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 weakest 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 Zebra-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… something that spoke to an awful lot of babyboomers of a certain age (and certainly spoke to me). Lew Archer was possibly the ultimate father figure and Ross Macdonald is probably still best read as a young man, preferably in a bus station at 1AM, with everything you own in a backpack, waiting for a bus to somewhere/anywhere else…”
    — Kevin Burton Smith
  • “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 unsold Mike Hammer pilot. Playing Hammer: Brian Keith. Can you think of another actor who could play both Hammer and Archer?)”
    — Ted Fitzgerald
  • 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 ofThe Rap Sheet’s One Book Project
  • “I’m not sure why I prefer The Way Some People Die to The Moving Target, the first book in the series, or The Galton Case, in which Macdonald distances himself from the influence of Chandler. I just like the nastiness of the plot and the sharpness of the dialogue.”
    — Dick Lochte, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)
  • “… a book that demonstrates a mastery of the detective novel, and a genius for plotting that may be unparalleled in the genre. It is also a book in which the depth of psychological insight emerges from a lifetime of rumination on the damages the author suffered, and created, in his own family life.”
     Tyler Sage of The Times Literary Supplement on The Chill (October 2018)

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

  • as Kenneth Millar
  • “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, EQMM)
  • as Ross Macdonald
  • “Midnight Blue” (October 1960, Ed McBain’s Mystery Magazine)
  • “The Sleeping Dog” (April 1965, Argosy)

COLLECTIONS

  • The Name is Archer (1955; as John Ross Macdonald)
    Includes “Find the Woman,” “Gone Girl,” “The Bearded Lady,” “The Suicide,” “Guilt-Edged Blonde,” “The Sinister Habit” and “Wild Goose Chase”
  • Lew Archer, Private Investigator (1977)
    All the stories from The Name is Archer, plus “Midnight Blue” and “The Sleeping Dog”
  • Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Stories (2001) | Buy this book
    Previously unpublished stories, edited by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, one featuring Joe Rogers (who was also in Macdonald’s 1st EQMM short, which was later re-written to star Lew Archer) and two with Lew Archer.
  • The Archer Files (2007)Buy this book
    Finally, all the Archer stories collected in one volume, plus bits and pieces of several unfinished Archer stories and novels, compiled by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, as well as his astounding biographical essay on Lew Archer. It doesn’t get any better than this for Macdonald fans.
  • Four Novels of the 1950s (2015)Buy this book
    Fancy pancy Library of America edition of The Way Some People Die, The Barbarous Coast, The Doomsters and The Galton Case, plus a handful of essays by MacDonald that shine a light on how he came to create Lew Archer.
  • Three Novels of the Early 1960s (2015, Lew Archer) | Buy this book
    Collects The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Chill and The Far Side of the Dollar. Annotated by perennial Macdonald Man Tom Nolan. From the Library of America.
  • Four Later Novels (2016, Lew Archer7)Buy this book
    Collects Black Money, The Instant Enemy, The Goodbye Look and The Underground Man. From the Library of America.
  • The Ross Macdonald Collection: Eleven Classic Lew Archer Novels (2017)Buy this book
    Collects all three of the Library of America editions (eleven novels), housed in a slipcover, andaannotated by Tom Nolan.

FILMS

  • HARPER | Buy the DVD Buy this Blu-ray Watch it now!
    (1966, Warner Brothers)
    Based on the novel The Moving Target by Ross Macdonald
    Screenplay by William Goldman
    Directed by Jack Smight
    Starring Paul Newman as LEW HARPER
    Also starring Lauren Bacall, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Robert Wagner, Janet Leigh, Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin, Robert Webber, Strother Martin, Harold Gould
    It’s kooky and it’s dated, and Newman’s take on Macdonald’s brooding, melancholy private eye is a little too hep cat for me, but this is a star-studded romp that’s still a lot of fun. By the way, “Lew Archer” became “Lew Harper,” because of Ross Macdonald’s reluctance to sign away franchise rights to his breadwinning detective’s name, NOT because Newman wanted to have another movie with an “H” title (after The Hustler and Hud). Even I fell for that long-running chunk of Hollywood lore.
  • THE DROWNING POOL | Buy the DVD Buy the Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    (1976, Warner Brothers)
    Based on the novel by Ross Macdonald
    Screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn, Lorenzo Semple and Walter Hill
    Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
    Starring Paul Newman as LEW HARPER
    Also starring Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosca, Murray Hamilton, Melanie Griffith, Richard Jaekel, Gail Strickland, Linda Haynes
    Harper gets all the acclaim and most of the attention, but personally I prefer The Drowning Pool for the slam bang locked-room escape and the way Newman stands tall in a nuanced verbal showdown against a powerful opponent, refusing to even turn his head. Toss in Robert Benton’s Twilight, as loving a rip-off of Macdonald as you can get without being sued, if you want to make it a hattrick. There Newman plays SoCal P.I. Harry Ross, but I defy anyone to tell me how he’s not just Archer/Harper under another name.

FILMS WORTH CONSIDERING

  • TWILIGHT
    (1998, Paramount)
    Original screenplay by Robert Benton
    What does it take for Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer to hit the big screen under his own name? In Robert Benton’s Twilight, which strived to out-Macdonald Macdonald, the private eye (once more played by Newman) was called Harry Ross, presumably a shout-out to Ross Macdonald.
  • LE LOUP DE LA CÔTE OUEST
    (aka “The Wolf of the West Coast”)
    (2002)
    Based on the short story “The Guilt-Edged Blonde” by John Ross Macdonald.
    Here we go again. This 2002 French film,based on the Archer short story “Guilt-Edged Blonde,” gives us LEW MILLAR, an even more obvious shout-out.

TELEVISION

  • THE UNDERGROUND MAN
    (1974, NBC)
    A Paramount Television Production made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Ross Macdonald
    Teleplay by Douglas Heyes
    Directed by Paul Wendkos
    Producer: Howard W. Koch
    Starring Peter Graves as LEW ARCHER
    Also starring Jack Klugman, Judith Anderson, Vera Miles, Kay Lenz, Jim Hutton, Sharon Farrell, Jo Ann Pflug
  • ARCHER
    (January-March 1975, NBC)
    A Paramount Television Production
    Series
    6 60-minute episodes
    Based on characters created by Ross Macdonald
    Writers: David P. Harmon, Jim Byrnes, Leigh Brackett, David Karp, Harold Livingston, Anthony Lawrence & Wallace Ware
    Directors: Gary Nelson, Paul Stanley, Edward Abroms, John Llewellyn Moxey, Arnold Laven, Jack Arnold
    Music: Jerry Goldsmith
    Starring Brian Keith as LEW ARCHER
    Also starring John P. Ryanas Lt. Barney Brighton
    Guest stars: Kim Darby, Neva Patterson, John Calvin, Anne Francis, Don Porter, David Brian, Diana Ewing

    • “The Turkish Connection” (January 30, 1975)
    • “The Arsonist” (February 6, 1975)
    • “The Body Beautiful” (February 13, 1975)
    • “Shades of Blue” (February 20, 1975)
    • “The Vanished Man” (March 6, 1975)
    • “Blood Money” March 13, 1975)

RADIO/AUDIO

  • SLEEPING BEAUTY
    (KCRW/NPR)
    7 hours
    Based on the novel by Ross Macdonald
    Directed by Harry Yulin
    Starring Harry Yulin as LEW ARCHER
    Also starring Ed Asner, Stacy Keach, Mary Kay Place
  • THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE
    (2000, KCRW/NPR)
    Original broadcast: July 3 , 2000; KCRW
    Based on the novel by Ross Macdonald
    Directed by Harry Yulin
    Score by Steve Croes
    Starring Harry Yulin as LEW ARCHER
    Also starring Edward Asner, Kathryn Harrold, Jennifer Tilly, Richard Dysart, Bruce Davison, Tony Plana, Shirley Knight, Tyne Daly, Mary Kay Place

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Peter Walker, with some additional tinkering from Kevin Burton Smith. Pictured above is Paul Newman as “Harper,” in the film of the same name.

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