Lew-Archer-PI

Lew Archer – a private detective working in Southern California – is a fictional character created by Ross Macdonald.

Archer’s name is a homage to Dashiell Hammett. Miles Archer was the name of Sam Spade’s murdered partner in “The Maltese Falcon”.

Though similar in some respects to Raymond Chandler’s tough guy investigator, Phillip Marlowe, Macdonald used Archer more as a lens to explore the relationships of the other characters in his novels.

Whereas Marlowe prowled the city of Los Angeles during the 1940s, Lew Archer primarily worked the suburbs in the 1950s, moving outward as the urban populace migrated.

In the books, Lew Archer is rarely described, though in “The Doomsters”, a sheriff mocks his 6’2″ and blue eyes.

Little is revealed about his past life.

We do learn that he once “took the strap away from my old man”, that he was a troubled kid and petty thief redeemed by an old cop, that he sometimes drank too much, that his ex-wife’s name is Sue, and that he thinks of her often.

Archer’s background is most thoroughly explored in “The Moving Target”.

In this story, we are told that he got his training with the Long Beach California Police Department, but left (Archer himself says he was “fired”) after witnessing too much corruption, and during World War II, he served in military intelligence with the United States Army.

The book was the basis for the film “Harper” (1966; directed by Jack Smight) with Lauren Bacall and Janet Leigh, which starred Paul Newman as Lew Harper.

Here’s a YouTube clip of Newman, in a scene from the movie:

That’s right; Harper. The name Archer was changed, at Newman’s request. Rumor has it, because Newman felt characters with “H” names were “lucky”.

Not so, the characters in Macdonald’s books.

A sense of tragedy pervades the novels, as the sins of omission and the committed crimes of sometimes-wealthy parents are frequently visited upon their children – young adults whom Archer tries desperately to save from disaster.

Key incidents are typically separated by fifteen years, as evidence from old crimes surfaces to haunt new characters.

As suspense in a novel builds toward its climax, Archer often gets little or no sleep, racing the clock and prowling the landscape for days continuously, trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together in order to prevent new violence.

This typically 36- or 48-hour wakefulness mimes the structure of a classic Greek tragedy, where everything takes place in one day.

For Archer, it might be more than a single day, but since the character doesn’t get to sleep, it essentially honors the tradition, and contributes to the overall sense of impending doom.

Little wonder that Archer is sometimes depressed, and often world-weary.

Paul Newman reprised the Lew Harper / Archer character in “The Drowning Pool” (1975; directed by Stuart Rosenberg) which was derived from the novel of the same title, and also starred Joanne Woodward and Anthony Franciosa.
Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

Tom Nolan in his “Ross Macdonald, A Biography”, wrote of the author: “He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery.”

And on that note, I’ll leave you.

Peace.

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