Lew Archer is back on the case

Times Staff Writer

He wasn’t the hardest of the hard-boiled or the toughest of the tough guys.

But Lew Archer, the often melancholy hero of a series of acclaimed detective novels by Ross Macdonald, matched his biting asides with a humane worldview, a love of the underdog and -- when he wasn’t boxing or downing Scotch -- an introspective charisma and cerebral temperament.

And while Archer narrates 18 novels, deemed by William Goldman in 1969 as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American author,” he remains almost spectral -- in the shadows of his own books.

Macdonald himself, according to biographer Tom Nolan, “liked to say that Archer was such a ‘thin presence’ that if he turned sideways he’d disappear.”


But the brooding detective -- whose tales have proven inspirational to writers from Robert Crais to James Ellroy to Michael Chabon -- has become, this summer, a bit less elusive.

Vintage Books has just released two early Archer novels, 1951’s “The Way Some People Die” and ’52’s “The Ivory Grin,” on its Black Lizard imprint. These books, which have not been widely available for more than a decade, will be joined by two other Archers in December. When “The Instant Enemy” and “The Blue Hammer,” Macdonald’s last novel, come out next April, all 18 Archer books will be in print.

At the same time, biographer Nolan has for the first time compiled all of the short stories in which Archer appears, as well as 11 fragments he found in the author’s archives at UC Irvine. They’re all reprinted in the new “The Archer Files,” which begins with Nolan’s 25-page biographical sketch of the detective.

“I think it’s a hugely important book,” said Otto Penzler, a mystery authority and proprietor of New York’s Mysterious Bookshop. “Obviously, getting all the short stories back into print is a wonderful thing. And Nolan did a brilliant job at pulling together every bit or information about Archer that’s been in the books and making reasonable assumptions.”

Personal approach

Ross Macdonald was the pen name of Kenneth Millar (1915-83), who, though raised in Vancouver, spent most of his career in Santa Barbara and set the bulk of his novels in and around L.A. Though he’s not as well known as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, in part because he had less luck with movie and television adaptations, Macdonald’s novels helped rewrite the hard-boiled tradition. (He was married to mystery writer Margaret Millar.)

The Archer books, over three decades, move gradually away from the hard-boiled model associated with Chandler into a more personal approach, often marked by an interest in the California land- and seascape and in the unraveling of society. With their runaway children, idle rich, recreational drug use, rampant divorce and deepening generation gap, the novels seem to track the beginnings of contemporary Southern California.

“Once he found his own prose style,” said Nolan, “which was very poetic and elegant and precise, he wrote novels which would never be mistaken for a Chandler or a Hammett book. He moved away from the emphasis on criminals and gangsters to looking at the tragedy and pathos of family life. His approach was more like Ibsen, who blamed everybody: There was enough guilt in his books to go around.”


By his breakthrough around 1960, Macdonald’s books incorporated in-depth psychology and an interest in the youth subcultures taking root on the West Coast.

Macdonald had a tight control of storytelling, and the ability to spring a surprise ending that’s also logical and consistent.

“In a lot of his books, as he’s investigating the current crime, he becomes involved in investigating something from the past,” Nolan said. “So that plot is going forward but also backward. There’s a point about two-thirds of the way through where they start to circle around each other, and they come together right at the end: It’s almost a physical sensation when you’re reading it.”

Macdonald’s last books, published in the ‘70s, add a concern with the environment that’s hard to imagine in an earlier noir writer. (Though tellingly, the imagery is framed with Chandleresque wit: An oil drilling platform resembles “the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood. . . . It smelled like something that had died but would never go away.”)


Writers from Crais to Robert B. Parker to Sue Grafton are indebted to him. Even Ellroy, whose dense, morally twisted novels seem far from the liberal humanism of Macdonald, has often praised the Archer books and their entanglements in old family traumas.

“I like the way Macdonald worked with buried secrets, original sin, evil passed down through the generations,” said Denise Hamilton, editor of the “L.A. Noir” anthology, who was especially struck by the surfer subculture in 1962’s “The Zebra-Striped Hearse.”

“He captured something almost Greek in the primitive atavism,” she said. “These pagans gathered around a fire at the edge of the continent, at night. He really captured something about youth tribes.”

Macdonald’s following ranged well beyond noir’s usual suspects: Eudora Welty gave 1971’s “The Underground Man” a rave on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, then quite rare for a genre book. During his lifetime, he was friends with poet Henri Coulette and rocker Warren Zevon, and more recently authors Haruki Marukami, Jonathan Lethem and Chabon have hailed his influence.


“Ross Macdonald is the paradigm, to me, of a writer who never wrote outside the so-called ‘confines’ of his genre yet who expanded those boundaries so far in terms of language, characterization and literary patterning that it makes no sense to talk of confines at all,” Chabon wrote in an e-mail. “He just wrote great novels about a private eye.”

The reissued novels are from the early ‘50s, relatively early for Macdonald. But his style is already clear: A few pages into “The Way Some People Die,” Archer drives into a city called Pacific Point. “It rose from sea level in a gentle slope,” Macdonald writes, “divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory.”

Says Nolan: “ ‘The Way Some People Die’ is a big jump up in quality, a quantum leap, from the earlier book in the series. He began to allow himself to use imagery and allusions from outside the hard-boiled tradition, Greek myth for instance.” The newly reissued “The Ivory Grin,” Nolan said, is almost as good.

A literary mind


Macdonald earned a PhD in English literature at the University of Michigan, where he studied with W.H. Auden and wrote on Coleridge. “Most people with a PhD in literature,” said Hamilton, “couldn’t write a hard-boiled sentence.”

Like his author -- who Nolan describes in his 1999 biography as dressing like a Midwesterner in the Santa Barbara sunshine and speaking with a Scots-Canadian accent -- Archer could be quiet, barely there.

“He’s not a guy who pulls out a gun, or who’s at the center of everything,” Penzler said. “He’s more cerebral than the other major detectives.

“The prose style holds your interest in a guy who’s basically thinking, rather than doing something. That’s the great skill Macdonald brings to it that most other writers couldn’t. But otherwise they’d be snores: So much of it is internal, which is why they’re hard to film.”


Says Crais: “I view Lew Archer as an anonymous man. And I suspect that was Macdonald’s intention.” The novels’ other characters stand out more strongly because the personality filtering them doesn’t overwhelm them.

“With Chandler,” said Crais, “the characters are observed through the Marlowe lens,” which is tempered with the private eye’s dry cynicism. “But in Macdonald, the window you’re looking through was clear glass.”

It may be that the low-key private eye allowed the personalities, and back stories, of his clients and suspects to fill out, in the same way a certain kind of psychoanalyst subordinates his presence for the sake of his patient.

“What do you think you are?” a suspect asks Archer in “The Way Some People Die.” “A psychoanalyst?”


“Thank God I’m not yours,” he responds. “I wouldn’t want to have to explain what made you do what you did. . . . There’s a lot of truth to be told, after all the lies, and if you won’t tell it I will. It might give you a little insight into yourself.”

Archer was always trying to look deeper into characters and their motivations, just as Macdonald was, reportedly, a serious, searching character. Today he seems -- even more than he did in his lifetime -- like a figure out of time, someone both worldly and not made for this world.

“Read the fragments,” Penzler said of the pieces Nolan unearthed. “They’ll blow you away. They’re perfectly finished, polished. You want to read the rest of this story. I think they were probably meant to be novels. They’re wonderful -- you just want to weep that these were never completed.”