Ross MacDonald & Lew Archer
If you ask anybody to name a famous private detective from American crime and mystery fiction of the past, you’ll undoubtedly receive in response the names of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s famous creation immortalised in many screen adaptations by actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould, or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, portrayed […]
If you ask anybody to name a famous private detective from American crime and mystery fiction of the past, you’ll undoubtedly receive in response the names of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s famous creation immortalised in many screen adaptations by actors such as Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum and Elliott Gould, or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, portrayed on the silver screen by (again) Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.
The name Lew Archer may not be mentioned so readily. Not because Lew Archer is not well known to most aficionados of the detective novel. On the contrary, Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels are revered within the crime genre, and indeed, some believe he even surpassed the achievements of Chandler and Hammett.
Perhaps the reason Archer has not quite achieved the iconic status that transcends genre is because he has never achieved a notable presence on the big screen, despite being portrayed by Paul Newman in the movies Harper and The Drowning Pool (where, inexplicably, his name was changed to Lew Harper).
The character of Lew Archer appeared in eighteen novels, published between 1949 and 1976. These novels have been described by legendary screenwriter William Goldman as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American“. MacDonald’s work achieved great critical acclaim, with his 1971 novel The Underground Man receiving a glowing front page review in “The New York Times”, quite a rarity for a mystery novel. Just as Ray Bradbury did for science fiction and tales of the fantastic, MacDonald’s work helped to gain, in the literary world, a wider acceptance of the crime novel as a viable art form, which enabled it to transcend the boundaries of genre.
Lew Archer can be seen as a more sensitive and empathetic character than Marlowe or Spade, more moved by and emotionally involved in the tribulations of his clients than his more hard boiled predecessors, while a sense of Greek tragedy often pervades his investigations, where the sins and past misdemeanours of parents are often visited upon their lost or wayward children. Archer so often seems to be a weary and disappointed witness to the tragic and ruined lives which his investigations illuminate, while the Southern California setting he prowls resembles a spiritually dying, night-shrouded landscape which is occasionally troubled into holding up, to a harsh, unforgiving light, the broken lives it harbours in its shadowy depths.
Ross MacDonald’s influence remains strong, with more recent exponents of the mystery novel such as John Connolly and the late Robert B. Parker citing him as a major influence. His reach even extends into the world of popular music, with Steely Dan genius Donald Fagen giving him a nod in the classic song The Goodbye Look (“I know what happens / I read the book / I believe I just got the goodbye look”).
For those who have never tried any of MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels, the good news is that they are all in print. And the really good news is that many of these novels are available to borrow from Fingal Libraries. Maybe start with The Goodbye Look, The Instant Enemy or The Chill. You’ll visit some dark places hidden under the Californian sunshine, but, like Donald Fagen, you can say that you’ve read the book.
By Alan Dunne, Fingal Libraries