Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Archer’s Return Engagement

In case you don’t remember, it was 23 years ago today that detective novelist Ross Macdonald, creator of the renowned Los Angeles private eye Lew Archer, died in Santa Barbara, California, after a protracted bout with Alzheimer’s disease. He was just 67 years old, and had written 24 novels, 18 of which--including The Moving Target (1949), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Galton Case (1959), The Chill (1964), The Underground Man (1971), Sleeping Beauty (1973), and his last, The Blue Hammer (1976)--starred the divorced, lonely, and compassionate Archer.

Macdonald (the pseudonym of Canada-reared Kenneth Millar) has long been heralded as the third member of an honored trinity of 20th-century novelists who created the modern American fictional P.I., the other two of course being Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It was his efforts to make something more literary of this genre that won the often shy but nonetheless determined Macdonald critical attention and helped to raise academic interest in crime fiction, in general--to make it worthy of serious study and thesis-writing. Thanks to the release of Paul Newman’s 1966 movie Harper, a still-popular adaptation of The Moving Target, Macdonald (who refused to relinquish exclusive film rights to Archer) was finally able to live in greater ease with his spouse, fellow mystery novelist Margaret Millar (Beast in View), the couple buying a house in Santa Barbara’s ritzy Hope Ranch neighborhood. However, the real break for Macdonald came three years later, when The New York Times Book Review, in critiquing his then-new novel, The Goodbye Look, proclaimed that his Archer books made up “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” In 1971, the Times went even further, assigning celebrated Southern writer Eudora Welty to review The Underground Man. She was unstinting in her praise:
As a detective and as a man [Lew Archer] takes the human situation with full seriousness. He cares. And good and evil both are real to him. ... He is at heart a champion, but a self-questioning, often a self-deriding champion. He is of today, one of ours. The Underground Man is written so close to the nerve of today as to expose most of the apprehensions we live with.

In our day it is for such a novel as
The Underground Man that the detective form exists. ... What gives me special satisfaction about this novel is that no one but a good writer--this good writer--could have possibly brought it off. The Underground Man is Mr. Macdonald’s best book yet, I think. It is not only exhilaratingly well done; it is also very moving.
Unfortunately, Macdonald was able to produce only two more novels between then and the end of his life. But even since his passing, his work continues to be published. In 2001, Tom Nolan, an L.A. writer who produced what is probably the single best study of Archer’s “father,” Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999), compiled three previously unpublished private-eye tales by Macdonald into a book, Strangers in Town. And, Nolan tells me, he’ll soon be following that up with a second collection for publisher Crippen & Landru, this one titled The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator.

“The idea,” explains Nolan, “is to collect ALL the Archer short stories--those from The Name Is Archer [originally published in 1955], from the expanded volume Lew Archer, Private Investigator [1977], and from C&L’s Strangers in Town.” That’s at least 12 yarns. In addition, Nolan says, The Archer Files will pack in “nearly a dozen fragments of Archer stories--unfinished and heretofore unpublished--found by me in Macdonald’s archive; some are only a page or two in length, some are quite long. All are of typically high quality; had he chosen to continue with them, they’d have been just as good as any of the works he published. (As you no doubt know, [Macdonald] kept notebooks of plot ideas which he returned to year after year, and often wrote beginning pages of novels or stories before deciding which notion to continue with. The unfinished or unchosen tales were there for him to consider the next time around.)”

So, when might we see The Archer Files in bookstores? “I can’t give you much of an exact pub date, or even a pub month, since we’re not quite near to being ready to publish,” Nolan confides. “I haven’t written my introduction yet, and the other folks are still readying their materials. My latest moved-up (moved-back?) deadline, for my contribution, is mid-August, which I hope to meet, but who knows. And then it’ll take however much longer it takes to put things in print and actually make a book. I think the best, or the most, I can say about when it’ll be a reality is ‘later this year.’”

Just reserve a copy for me, OK? As someone who came to Ross Macdonald early in life (The Moving Target was the first detective novel I ever read, back in high school), and later had the distinct good fortune to interview the author, the chance to read any new material by him is welcome, indeed.

READ MORE:The Rap Sheet: First Contact,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Kirkus Reviews).


Anonymous said...

Alzheimer’s claimed John D. MacDonald as well. How sad.

mybillcrider said...

For me, Ross Macdonald will always be one of the greats.