Friday, 8 November 2013

The Name Is Archer by Ross Macdonald, 1955

The spotlight is on Ross Macdonald for this Friday’s Forgotten Books over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

I SAT in my brand-new office with the odor of paint in my nostrils and waited for something to happen.
— Opening line of ‘Find the Woman’ in which Ross Macdonald first introduced Lew Archer

If something doesn’t happen then Lew Archer, the private detective from Southern California, makes something happen, as he does in two out of the three stories I’ve read so far in this collection of seven original stories by Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar).

In both the stories, Gone Girl and The Bearded Lady, Archer happens to be around when a crime is about to take place or has already taken place. When he is not hired to solve the case, he hangs around to investigate the crime. Although money is thrust into Archer’s hands, you get the impression that it’s not important in his scheme of things and he'll, matter-of-factly, pocket a fifty-dollar advance.

In Gone Girl, for instance, Archer is outside his room in a motel when he sees a girl with blood on her hands. Before long, he is employed by the girl, the only daughter of the motel owner, to investigate the death of a man. Did she kill him? Archer finds more than he’d bargained for. 

In the second story, Archer is visiting a close friend, a talented but down-on-his-luck artist, who vanishes without a trace, as does an expensive painting from the museum he frequented, putting a family’s reputation under a cloud. Archer to the rescue again.

You don’t know what Lew Archer’s motivation is but he has enough to want to stick his neck out.

In Find the Woman, the first story in this collection, the private detective, as Archer likes to call himself, is actually waiting for something to happen when Millicent Dreen, a publicity director for a production house, walks into his office and hires him to look for Una, her beautiful twenty-two year old daughter who has been missing from their beach house. Dreen, who is no less easy on the eyes, suspects that her daughter, a famous actor, drowned because she wasn’t a strong swimmer. Archer accepts the case and pockets the hundred-dollar advance.

It’s not long before Lew Archer gets to the bottom of the case, literally. Una was married to Jack Rossiter, a handsome and athletic naval officer whose long stretch away from home gave her reason to have sexual affairs with other men and her mother the perfect ruse to engineer her own daughter’s death by drowning. To say why she does it or how she does it would be giving too much away.

Ross Macdonald first introduced Lew Archer in Find the Woman, a short story that was published in the June 1946 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The fictional private eye made his debut in a regular novel with The Moving Target in 1949. This was made into a film called Harper in 1966. It had Paul Newman as Lew Harper instead of Lew Archer. I haven't read the book or seen the film. In fact, The Moving Target is one of four secondhand Lew Archer novels I have. Not to have read even a single book yet is a criminal waste.

What did I like most about the three stories I read in The Name Is Archer? Apart from the writing, which is equivalent to a punch right in the solar plexus, and the not so flattering look at women and the depths to which they can sink, the celebrated author pulls a neat trick on the reader: a detective is hired by people guilty of a crime to investigate a crime that really isn't a crime, at least not in the strict sense. The catch-22 scenario in the stories reminded me of No Comebacks, 1982, a collection of ten stories in which Frederick Forsyth uses a similar ploy, the twist at the end of each tale leaving the reader a tad disappointed though not without acknowledging the writer’s brilliant deception.

While Ross Macdonald has admitted to being influenced by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose works I’m not all that familiar with, his style of writing, if not in its intensity, is reminiscent of that other pillar of hardboiled fiction, Mickey Spillane, and his detective Mike Hammer. Clearly, Macdonald acknowledged his debt to Chandler when he told The Village Voice in 1975: “Chandler was and remains a hard man to follow.”



P.S.: After reading Patti's reviews as well as some other reviews of Ross Macdonald's works at her blog, Pattinase, I wish to mention that The Name Is Archer has been included in The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer edited by his biographer Tom Nolan. It contains stories from The Name Is Archer, Lew Archer: Private Investigator, and the three stories in Strangers in Town among other material.

15 comments:

  1. I'm going to have to dog my R. Mac books out of a box in my closet.

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    1. This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. (REVISION 11/30/14: The number is much higher. Going back over the work a second and third time I see I missed a lot in my initial sweep.) I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.
      http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/11/ross-macdonald-drowning-pool.html#.VGiE3jTF_xA

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    2. Elizabeth, thank you for visiting and commenting.

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  2. Enjoyed this, thanks. I've read only one Ross Macdonald novel, FIND A VICTIM, set not in LA but in the no-man's-land midway between LA and San Francisco. His fiction seems to spring from the same impulse as whatever caused the flood of film noir movies from Hollywood. Watched BORN TO KILL last night, and there's that same world of the private detective you mention--amoral and lawless, shabby under a glittering surface.

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  3. Great way to start reading Macdonald's wrok Prashant! I think it's worth pointing out though that ' Find the Woman' when first published (under his real name of Kenneth Millar) did not in fact feature Archer but another character - when the short story collection was put together Macdonald changed the name of the character, somethign Hammett did with Sam Spade and Chandler did with Philip Marlowe stories. Archer was in fact introduced in THE MOVING TARGET and then got fitted in retrospectively, so to speak (sic).

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  4. Retroactively...yes, very much in the tradition of Millar's models...

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  5. Great review, Prashant. And two of them.

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  6. I am definitely going to have to get my hands on the Archer short stories, Prashant. From everything I've read today, they sound like stories I'd enjoy reading. I'm not a big fan of shorts, but I don't seem to mind reading them when they're mysteries. Example: Rex Stout and Agatha Christie's short story collections.

    P.S. I didn't realize today was Ross MacDonald day so my review features another writer.

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  7. You can see the development of Ross Macdonald's writing in reading his short stories. I have THE ARCHER FILES and every Ross Macdonald fan needs a copy in their collection.

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  8. Love looking at all the original covers. I haven't read Ross MacDonald yet but have a few of his titles in my collection. He's one of those writers I hope to get to soon. Thanks for the write up Prashant. Oh and you're in for a treat since you haven't read Dashiell Hammett yet.

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  9. I covered Gone Girl by itself under its first title The Imaginary Blonde for FFB. I wish I'd had time to read more, but after reading all these fine reviews, I'll be making time.

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  10. Excellent post, Prashant. I have read Ross Macdonald, but so long ago I don't remember much. Will be reading some soon. Some of his books were set in a fictionalised version of Santa Barbara.

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  11. I hope to get some Macdonald under my belt next year...not enough time in 2013! Great post, Prashant.

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  12. This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/11/ross-macdonald-drowning-pool.html#.VGwznDSUeRZ

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  13. Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/12/ross-macdonald-black-money.html#.VLdYidKUc7U

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