First Things - Religion and Public Life First Things on your tablet & mobile
Login forgot password? | register Close

The Ross Macdonald Collection:
11 Classic Lew Archer Novels

by ross macdonald
edited by tom nolan
library of america, 
3 volumes, 2618 pages, $112.50

Near the end of Find a Victim, Ross Macdonald’s 1954 novel of murder and hijacking in a small California town, private eye Lew Archer suggests to the district attorney that the local sheriff may be the culprit. The DA replies:

“Just what are you getting at?”

“She [the murder victim] was more than his sister-in-law. They were lovers, weren’t they?”

He drew his fingers wearily across his forehead. “I’ve heard they were having an affair. But that doesn’t prove anything. In fact, it makes it even less likely that he had anything to do with her death.”

“It doesn’t rule out passional crime. He may have shot her out of jealousy.”

“You saw the grief on his face.”

“I saw it. Murderers feel grief like anyone else.”

The exchange is anchored entirely in the action—until the last sentence. “Murderers feel grief like anyone else.” The statement applies to the immediate situation, but offers a broader piece of moral instruction. The DA doesn’t believe that a murderer could grieve over his victim. He has a linear understanding of intent. Archer corrects him and anybody else who has an unmixed conception of aggression. As Macdonald told Alfred Knopf in 1952, “My subject is something like this: human error, and the ambivalence of motive.” It’s not only that Archer thinks any murderer can feel regret over a killing. The insight runs deeper than that. It announces a disturbing paradox: A killer may grieve over the death of his target, yes, but if given the chance to go back in time, he would do the deed once more. Murderers can feel all the things that the rest of us feel, and still be murderers.

Moments such as this one explain why the mid-century detective novels of Macdonald, pen name of Kenneth Millar, remain popular. He is generally recognized as one of the best second-generation writers in the golden age of American detective fiction, a strong successor to the authors of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The Library of America released a stylish boxed set of Hammett in 2013, Chandler in 2014. (Elmore Leonard got the deluxe treatment in 2017.) Now we have a three-volume set of Macdonald’s Archer novels, edited by his biographer Tom Nolan and running from The Way Some People Die (1951) to The Underground Man (1971), accompanied by some interesting prose reflections on his own work. The sequence of Library of America projects would please him. In an essay on his genre written in 1977 (included in volume 1 of this series), Millar said in response to scholars who found his books a case of wasted literary talent, “I persisted in my intellectual deviance, trying to stretch my legs to match Chandler’s markings, telling myself that down these streets a mean man must go.”

Kenneth Millar was born in California in 1915, but grew up in Canada. His mother, a Christian Scientist, was a nurse until she caught typhoid from a patient and had to leave the field. By the time Millar comes along, she is a frail and needy figure. His father, an atheist, bounces around the Canadian and American West as a miner, newspaper editor, and boat pilot before abandoning the family while Millar is a toddler. Mother and son beg for food and stay in rooming houses until Mrs. Millar decides to place him in an orphanage and relatives step in to take charge of the boy.

The relatives enroll him in good schools, where, in spite of fistfights, theft, and drinking, he earns high grades, plays sports, reads like crazy, and edits the school yearbook. His parents die before he finishes at the University of Western Ontario, but he presses on, running the literary magazine, acting in plays, and marrying his high school sweetheart, Margaret Sturm, who in the next seven years will publish six novels. (She later serves as president of the Mystery Writers of America, and another Library of America boxed set, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, includes her 1955 hit Beast in View.) Graduate school at the University of Michigan follows, with poet W. H. Auden and critic Cleanth Brooks as teachers and a dissertation on Coleridge, until Millar enters the Navy and ends up in the Battle of Okinawa. Hollywood wants to buy the rights to Margaret’s novels, and the family moves to California after the war. They settle in Santa Barbara and enjoy marvelous literary careers and a happy life together, marred only by the death of their disturbed daughter at age thirty-one and the psychic scars of Millar’s childhood, which land him now and then in psychiatric care.

It is easy to see how the events of his early life shaped the novels. Unlike Hammett, Millar had no detective experience, but the whodunit aspect of his plots matters less than the confusing interactions of variously unhappy and venal characters, particularly members of the same family.

Lew Archer stands apart from these unhappy situations and tries to sort things out. Though we get hints of his juvenile delinquent adolescence, he is the dedicated truth-seeker, the one who pursues fact and reality while the rest are after love and money. In 1954, Millar spent a few weeks touring juvenile halls and state hospitals with a psychiatric social worker. The research showed up in The Doomsters, a novel published four years later, when Archer approaches a psychiatric hospital from which a client of his escaped the day before. Archer doesn’t know the man, really. The character showed up at his door at dawn, erratic and babbling about the deaths of his parents. Archer convinces him to return to the hospital, but just before they arrive, the man slugs him cold and takes his car. Archer awakens and marches along the road until he reaches the entrance and describes what he sees. It’s a large compound out in the hills with no walls around it.

Broad avenues divided the concrete buildings which gave no outward indication of their use. The people walking on the sidewalks looked not much different from people anywhere, except that there was no hurry, nowhere to hurry to. The sun-stopped place with its massive, inscrutable buildings had an unreal quality; perhaps it was only the hurry that was missing.

This isn’t quite like the remark cited above about murderers and grief. Here we have an observation about a unique site in modern society. Once again, though, it fits with the action but stands apart from it. We can generalize from it to say that patients and caretakers in low-security mental institutions have been removed from ordinary conditions and created a slightly unreal habitat, the unreality imparted by the singular detail of the absence of hurry.

When I read that paragraph, I had to pause and consider hurry as a thing. The language makes it no longer a feature subordinate to a separate behavior, doing this or that in a hurry, but a behavior in itself. From there, you ponder the implications of it: people with a goal in mind, conscious of time, assuming some responsibility or other to get something done. All of that is absent in this place, and Millar manages to capture that uncanny atmosphere by singling out just the one feature: Nobody’s in a hurry.

He has set the perception up, moreover, in a nicely dramatic way. Archer doesn’t know anything about the man who has sought his help; his story was too disjointed and emotional for Archer to make much sense of it. We get hints of a mother who killed herself a few years before, a father who died of a heart attack many months ago, and the man’s conviction that he caused both deaths, along with allegations that the head of the psychiatric center has conspired with the man’s brother to commit him. We want to know what’s going on. But just before we reach the place that might supply some answers, Archer gets coldcocked and the man disappears. Now, Archer arrives on foot, frustrated and inquisitive. Our curiosity, too, is high. The no-hurry observation enhances it. Yes, there is something strange about this place, even down to the casual movements of the denizens.

It’s just a brief impression, but such remarks are crucial to the story. In a mystery novel, especially one told in the first person as Macdonald’s are, the detective’s angle of vision must be engaging. If he isn’t fascinating, witty, astute, or otherwise grounded in the right way, we lose interest in the case. Raymond Chandler draws you in to his stories with interesting characters and an observant eye for Los Angeles and Hollywood before the war, but there is also private dick Philip Marlowe’s amusing wisecracks, such as his half-mocking tagline, “Trouble Is My Business” (the title of one of Chandler’s stories).

Archer isn’t funny like that. In The Barbarous Coast (1956), he gives his own professional take on trouble: “Trouble is what the word detective means to me.” You can see the difference. This is a workmanlike formulation with no room for cracking wise. Archer lives with the memory of too many mistakes to give himself a romantic aura. He sometimes makes a decision only to note in the next sentence that if he had chosen differently, three or four people may not have died. Melancholy runs through his investigations, especially a sad desire for a woman’s love. (He never gets over the fact that his long-gone wife stopped caring.)

Ours is a “very messed-up society,” Millar once said, and he included himself in the judgment. Like Chandler, he took Los Angeles as his setting—what better landscape in which to set loose a gumshoe determined to penetrate lies while knowing that the truth he uncovers will only depress him? There, he battles neurotic corruption and depravity. Pre-war Los Angeles was a place of Hollywood myths, ranches in the San Fernando Valley, Prohibition and the Depression. Archer’s Los Angeles is postwar, with an exploding population, spreading suburbs, teens in hot rods, and TV advertising, a different kind of maladjustment afflicting everyone who lives there. He’s handsome and tough, like Marlowe, but sometimes pathetic in a way that Marlowe never is.

At an early point in The Doomsters, Archer and the pretty wife of the escapee, a petite, youngish woman loyal to her husband, drive away from her alcoholic mother’s home.

She’d leaned her head against the cracked leather seat, and closed her eyes. Without their light and depth in her face, she looked about thirteen. I caught myself up short, recognizing a feeling I’d had before. It started out as paternal sympathy but rapidly degenerated, if I let it.

Archer doesn’t trust himself, not next to a lovely and fragile young woman coping with a drunken mother and a nutty husband. He wants to help, but recognizes, too, the depravity in himself and pulls back. We don’t mistrust him for this. Instead, we sense the loneliness. And, at the end of the novel, we realize his misguided impulse: She’s a murderer.

I don’t know if Ross Macdonald’s books will still be read a hundred years from now. The Library of America no longer has an authorizing function. It expanded beyond the lineage of the traditional American literary canon long ago and now includes in its 301 volumes journalism, historical documents, and pop culture writings. Genre fiction can’t survive as the classics do because teachers assign them. They need an enduring popular audience. But Macdonald’s achievement is powerful: eighteen novels tracking one man through a mid-century Los Angeles of irreversible errors, half-built subdivisions, and spent lives. The record is a worthy alternative to the childish moral instruction young Americans receive from youth culture, Star Wars, and the rest.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.