Monday, July 02, 2007

A Master’s Last Bow

Editor’s note: Tomorrow, The Rap Sheet will have the distinct honor of excerpting a 2,500-word fragment of a never-before-published story written by
Ross Macdonald and featuring his renowned fictional Los Angeles private detective, Lew Archer. This introduction to an unfinished tale, titled “Heyday in the Blood,” appears in a just-released collection called The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator, edited by Southern California writer Tom Nolan, an infrequent January Magazine contributor and the author previously of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999). In anticipation of our excerpting that material here, we asked Nolan to tell us a little about how he happened across this and other unpublished Macdonald works. We offer his response below.

* * *

It was my privilege, while doing research for a biography of the late Ross Macdonald (real name: Kenneth Millar), to make several unexpected discoveries amongst the many cartons of manuscripts and documents held in that highly-regarded author’s archive at the University of California, Irvine.

The Millar Papers yielded hundreds of letters exchanged between Kenneth and his wife, Margaret Millar (herself a noted writer), during World War II and other periods. There was correspondence from Ken Millar’s Canadian relatives, including his father; and missives from such literary figures as Nelson Algren, Marshall McLuhan, Donald Davie, and Sir David Hare. There was also an extraordinary biographical-confessional document dated 1956, in which Millar/Macdonald purged himself of a lifetime’s family secrets in an effort to aid his only child through a time of extreme crisis.

But as intriguing as any of these, perhaps, were a number of mostly handwritten pages found within the dozens of spiral-bound notebooks in which Ross Macdonald, over a three-decade period, penned the manuscripts of his stories involving private detective Lew Archer. Here, in between plot outlines and final drafts, were a number of unpublished pieces involving Archer (or, in one case, a reasonable facsimile): three complete short stories, and nearly a dozen fragments of unfinished tales.

Crippen & Landru, the much-honored Virginia independent publisher, presented the three complete stories in 2001 as Strangers in Town, a book I edited and introduced. Now the same house is bringing to light those archival fragments, as a final section in the just-published anthology The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator, a volume, edited by me, which collects for the first time all of Macdonald’s short fiction about Archer, including the works first presented in Strangers in Town.

Years after Macdonald put them aside, and a decade after I happened upon them, The Archer Files finally presents to the public those previously unknown pieces of Lew Archer’s possible pasts.

Archer himself--the star of 18 novels, from The Moving Target (1949) to The Blue Hammer (1976)--has often seemed something of an enigma, especially in this post-Macdonald era when fictional detectives’ private lives are woven inextricably into their adventures. Macdonald and Archer were more discreet. Each felt the detective was a secondary character; that the less the reader learned of him, the better.

But, as Macdonald acknowledged near the end of Archer’s career, “Less is more.” Readers had come to care about Archer despite (or even because of) his habit of disappearing into his cases.

And there really was more to know than first met the eye. Though no single Archer novel dwelt much on its protagonist-narrator’s history, taken together the books’ isolated revelations told quite a bit about this highly principled and melancholy investigator.

So, drawing on facts and clues strewn throughout Macdonald’s books and stories, I wrote, as an introduction to The Archer Files, a biographical sketch of Lew Archer: a not-so-brief history of the character whom no less an admirer than Eudora Welty called “a champion” and “a distinguished creation ... As a detective and as a man he takes the human situation with full seriousness.”

Thus book-ended by Archer’s life-history and by a tantalizing collection of case notes (one of which, “Heyday in the Blood,” The Rap Sheet will present to you tomorrow), the dozen stories in The Archer Files seem (to this reader, at least) as well-wrought, engrossing, and evocative as ever: tales of violence and sadness from a century that already seems so much more compelling than the one in which we live now.

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