Sunday, May 22, 2016

His Name Was Archer

The Moving Target (Lew Archer #1)  (1949) by Ross Macdonald (a.k.a. Kenneth Millar): Ross Macdonald's first novel about California P.I. Lew Archer sets the tone for everything that will follow. While bits of information will be doled out about Archer himself in his first-person narration, the focus will remain on the case he's trying to solve. Archer's strengths as a narrator (or Macdonald's as a writer, really) are his careful attention to detail, his understanding of character, and his skill at creating appropriate, revealing metaphors.

Lew Archer really ruled the American hard-boiled roost from the late 1940's until the 1970's, garnering praise from mainstream critics. The praise is deserved. These are fine novels, period, not simply fine detective novels. Macdonald's understanding of characterization and setting are already highly developed in 1949. Only the novel's period-specific references and some of the euphemisms indicate its time period. Otherwise, this could just as easily have been published yesterday.

The plot involves Archer's pursuit of a missing millionaire through various fascinating settings, including the rural compound of a New Agey cult leader. Nothing is as it seems, and no one. Welcome to post-war California. Recommended.

The Doomsters  (Lew Archer #7)  (1959) by Ross Macdonald (a.k.a. Kenneth Millar): More than a decade in and the Lew Archer P.I. series remains fresh, with only the deepening, heart-sick mordancy of its protagonist-narrator Lew Archer to mark the passage of time. Archer's past mistakes surface in this novel, as a now-heroin-addicted man he tried to mentor as a teenager sends a client his way -- straight from an escape from a mental institution. The twists in this case are wild and tangled and horribly human. The tragedy of the narrative is only heightened by the use of a Thomas Hardy phrase for the title -- a phrase repeated from one of Hardy's poems in the narrative. Macdonald portrays mental illness starkly and sympathetically, especially for the late-1950's time of the novel. Highly recommended.

The Goodbye Look (Lew Archer #15)  (1969) by Ross Macdonald (a.k.a. Kenneth Millar): More than 20 years into his career, California P.I. Lew Archer continues to wend his way through the tangled pasts and presents of his clients, often finding things they themselves wished had remained buried. The case here is a complicated one, navigated and explained with Archer/Macdonald's patented observational and metaphorical skills. Archer gets more personally involved than normal in this one, but he still works the case to its necessary conclusion -- one set up with complete fairness but impossible to clearly see until one is almost upon it. Great character writing, great and sad depictions of the damned and the lost and the searching. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I've read a handful of the Archer novels, but think my favorite is the short story collection THE NAME IS ARCHER (1955).