Sunday, July 29, 2007

“A Saint With a Gun”

The last seven days turned out to be Ross Macdonald Week here at Rap Sheet headquarters. Not officially, but as an upshot of the fact that two reminders of that renowned American detective novelist’s talent came winging through the mail slot almost simultaneously.

First was a finished copy of Tom Nolan’s The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator (Crippen & Landru), which collects a dozen previously published short stories--all featuring Macdonald’s empathic Los Angeles career gumshoe--together with 11 Lew Archer story fragments that have never before seen print. I wrote about this volume at least a couple of times before its release (see here and here); posted editor Nolan’s memories of discovering the 11 forgotten false starts, or “case notes,” that cap this edition; and even featured in The Rap Sheet one of those never-before-seen yarns, “Heyday in the Blood.” Yet not until this week had I actually seen the book in its completed state. And a truly handsome work it is. Illustrator Jeff Wong based his cover design on Mitchell Hooks’ illustration for the 1955 Bantam paperback publication of The Name Is Archer, which contained seven of Macdonald’s Archer yarns. (At the time, Macdonald--whose real name was Kenneth Millar--was still using the pseudonym “John Ross Macdonald.”) In Wong’s artistic homage, the tough-jawed, gun-toting Archer of Hooks’ painting has been replaced by a pen-holding Macdonald. (Click over to Wong’s Web site to read a full explanation of how this cover illustration evolved.)

As visually appealing as The Archer Files is, though, it’s still the text inside the covers that makes this volume most valuable. And I don’t just mean the short stories that appeared earlier in The Name Is Archer and two subsequent works, Lew Archer, Private Investigator (1977), and Strangers in Town (2001). Nor am I referring primarily to those unfinished story openings (the most satisfying of which may be “Little Woman” and “Do Your Own Time,” in addition to the aforementioned “Heyday”). While it’s certainly interesting to read the tales that Macdonald couldn’t quite get out of the starting gate, and see how they resemble other stories he did eventually complete or how they carry through themes familiar from his full oeuvre, I think that some applause should also be given to Nolan for his 11,000-word introduction, “Archer in Memory.” This is essentially a biography of Lewis A. Archer, gathering together the many clues about that fictional figure’s history and thinking that Macdonald dropped like bread crumbs throughout his prose. It’s particularly interesting to those of us who’ve read Archer’s adventures over a long period of time, and are reminded of his various cases by the quotes, developments, and relationship’s Nolan cites.

Here, for instance, we are briefed on Archer’s growing-up years in Long Beach, California; his Catholic mother and prizefighting Uncle Jake (“the first of several veteran battlers,” Nolan writes, “who’d instruct Lew in the finer points of how to slip a punch, stay on your toes, lead with your left, and throw a combination”); and his fondness for Hollywood films. Also recalled are Archer’s adolescence as “a junior-grade hood” and lover of fast cars; his short experience as a member of the Long Beach Police Department, and his difficulty in remaining honest among so many corrupt colleagues and politicians; his apprenticeship as a private detective, his service with the U.S. Army during World War II, and his abbreviated marriage to a blonde named Sue (who “didn’t like the company Lew kept”); and the moral ambiguities of doing his job (“This is a dirty business I’m in,” Archer said in Find a Victim [1954]. “All I can do is watch myself and keep it as clean as I can.”). Archer understood that the world wasn’t a black-and-white, good vs. evil place, and that he might find himself forced to straddle moral fences, as he sought to help the injured and wronged (another character called him “a saint with a gun”). Fortunately for him, as he grew older he moved away from cases involving organized crime and toward those involving dysfunctional families, torn apart by the coincidence of historical violations and violence reverberating in the present. “The man without a family of his own,” Nolan writes, “became counselor and adjudicator to other people’s families--a substitute parent, guiding and protecting the sons and daughters he himself never had.”

Here, too, we find a suggestion of what ultimately happened to Lew Archer. Nolan notes that the private eye was born on June 2, “probably in the year 1915” (six months before the novelist himself took his first breath). So if he were still alive, he’d be 92. But the editor suggests that Archer has not been around to celebrate his birthdays for a while:
Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels stopped in 1976 with The Blue Hammer, a premature conclusion caused by the onset of Macdonald’s eventually diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. We can only guess at Lew Archer’s ultimate fate.

On the outer edge of possibility would be a violent end for the detective who had so many weapons aimed at him through the years in Southern California, where handguns sometimes seemed as plentiful as used cars.

A more plausible and in a way more awful fate may be theorized: the private eye may have succumbed to the same disease that halted the author who’d written about him for a quarter-century.
Nolan must have re-read every one of Macdonald’s 18 Archer novels, plus all of the short stories, in order to write his introduction to The Archer Files. That in itself is an accomplishment of which to be proud. But it’s what he has done with that reading and simultaneous note-taking that is to be most applauded. “Archer in Memory” honors both the character and his creator--the former, because it reminds us that Macdonald’s sleuth rose from troubled roots to become a good man, a saver of people no less lonely than he; and the latter, because this essay recalls quite clearly why it is that The New York Times dubbed Ross Macdonald’s stories “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”

One can only really understand that endorsement, however, by reading the full novels. Which is why my receipt last week of a brand-new edition of The Way Some People Die (1951), the third entry in Macdonald’s Archer series, was so welcome. It seems that, with a movie adaptation of The Galton Case (1959) being developed for 2009 by Brokeback Mountain producer James Schamus, U.S. publisher Vintage Books has decided to capitalize on the pre-publicity by reissuing stylish paperback versions of the Archer novels under its Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint. Some of these works have been out of print for the last decade, and it’s good to have them back.

Vintage Books publicist Julia Baxter tells me in an e-note that The Way Some People Die is just the first of half a dozen Macdonald reissues coming down the pike, with the next release being The Ivory Grin (1952). Over the next year, she says, “Vintage Crime will be reprinting four more Lew Archer stories, The Barbarous Coast [1956], The Blue Hammer, The Doomsters [1958], and The Instant Enemy [1968], although we unfortunately don’t have cover art ready at the moment. The first should come out in December’ 07 ...” Even if the jackets of these fresh editions follow a recent trend toward the use of split imagery, they remain both moody and evocative of the earlier eras and settings in which Archer plied his sometimes sordid trade. Very eye-catching.

Of The Way Some People Die, Karl-Erik Lindkvist, the Swedish creator of an excellent Web site called The Ross Macdonald Files, remarked some years ago in January Magazine that it is “the first really full-fledged Archer novel. The previous two, The Moving Target [1949] and The Drowning Pool [1950], hinted at the things Macdonald wanted to accomplish as a writer, but in those he didn’t quite reach his goals. In The Way Some People Die the plot is still fairly simple, compared with his later works. But it was far ahead of the hard-boiled stuff then being turned out by other authors. ...
This adventure starts at a house in Santa Monica, where a worried mother hires Archer to look for her daughter, Galatea (“Galley”), who has been missing for more than three months. The only sign that she’s still alive is a card, posted to her mother from San Francisco on Christmas Eve of the previous year. When Archer starts asking questions at the hospital where Galley used to work, he realizes that she is mixed up in some kind of organized-crime racket responsible for running drugs from Mexico into California. There’s $100,000 worth of heroin missing, along with $30,000 in cash that was supposed to pay for the drugs. After his own gun is used in a murder, Archer is sought by both the mob and the police, and before his case is cleared up, the reader has found out why Macdonald gave his novel such an odd title. This is the first book in which Lew Archer encounters homicidal women, and it is filled with male-female conflicts--a principal concern of Macdonald’s later novels.
As I recall, The Way Some People Die was one of the first Macdonald books I ever read. The first was The Moving Target (later made into the 1966 Paul Newman picture Harper), given to me by an assistant librarian at my high school, and the second might have been The Barbarous Coast, the Bantam paperback edition of which carried the photograph of a topless blonde, guaranteed to attract an adolescent boy’s attention. If my memory serves, The Way Some People Die was No. 3, to be followed in short order by the remaining 15 Lew Archer books, plus Macdonald’s six non-series crime novels.

I look forward to re-reading The Way Some People Die, and the Macdonald reissues still to come. I’ve been thinking for years that I should take the opportunity to enjoy this author’s work all over again, and now seems like an ideal chance. Unlike the first time I read these books, though, I do so today with a fuller understanding of P.I. Archer’s background, weaknesses, and hopes, thanks to Tom Nolan’s “biographical sketch” of the character.


Unknown said...

Enjoyed the post, and it's good to hear that some of the Macdonald books will be coming back into print. He's been a favorite of mine for about 45 years now.

Anonymous said...

I started reading Ross Macdonald back in 1980 when I was in college. I loved him from the beginning and have reread most of his novels. I am glad to have found a site that admires him too. I collect everything about him, old interviews etc. I was really hoping that Tom Nolan might publish a book of Macdonald's correspondence with Eudora Welty.

Anonymous said...

JKP - Thank you so much for all the coverage and generous words for The Archer Files!

Sara - I take it you've got Suzanne Marr's biography of Eudora Welty from 2005? It quotes liberally from the Millar/Welty letters. I know Ralph Sipper felt both sides of the correspondence should see print, but, Miss Welty, at least in her lifetime, didn't wish the letters to be published. The complete letters between the two would be fascinating reading; the chapters involving Millar in the Marr book read like a love story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff. No I don't have the book but I certainly will obtain a copy.

Anonymous said...

Correction: Suzanne Marrs