According to the best online source of all things related to PI fiction, Thrilling Detective, Lew Archer “stands with the Continental Op, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe as one of the few PI's who actually define the genre.” I’ve read Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and the first two Marlow books and, thus, I knew those PIs. Who the heck is Lew Archer?
My thought process went something like this: Who’s Lew Archer? Lew Archer is the PI created by Ross MacDonald. MacDonald? Ain’t he the guy who created that other PI who lives on a boat? No, that would be John D. Macdonald who created Travis McGee. Oh, well, then, is this MacDonald the same guy who created Fletch. No! Still a different MacDonald. Sheesh, I thought. Somebody should have chosen a pen name.
Lew Archer is a PI in, where else, southern California. He is hired to find one Ralph Sampson. Now, being from Houston, I couldn’t help thinking about the old Houston Rockets basketball player but that’s just me. We follow the story from Archer’s first-person POV. I think in PI fiction, where you have the one hero against the world, the first-person POV works great. It does so here, really giving the reader a taste of what it is like to be a WWII veteran who used to be a cop but quit for honorable reasons.
Confession: I started this book three times before I actually plowed my way through it. This is one of those times where a bad reader can ruin a good book. The Blackstone audio folks didn’t pick well with this reader. Or was it the prose? I have to admit, there were times when I was, uh, bored. At one point, I didn’t care if Archer found Sampson or not.
Besides, I was listening to The Moving Target at the same time I was reading Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers. Perhaps that wasn’t wise. In crime fiction, and PI fiction especially, each subsequent author builds on the foundations of previous authors. These were two first books, separated by nearly twenty years. It is possible that Block took some of Archer when he created Matt Scudder. Without any other outside influence (that is, not having read, in advance how famous these two PIs are), if you asked me which book I liked more, it would have been Block’s book. But, in terms of PIs, I prefer Archer. He's a cool customer with a great head on his shoulders that seems to take a pounding everyday. And, like Scudder, Archer has a resolute moral code, all but unbreakable in this first book.
Don’t get me wrong: The Moving Target was a good PI story. Literally, one of the culprits is not revealed until the end and, frankly, I didn’t see it coming. I liked how Archer unfolded the story layer by layer. But it didn’t suck me in like A Drink Before the War, The Sins of the Fathers, or The Maltese Falcon. Hmm, come to think of it, 2 out of three of those books owe a debt to MacDonald.
I’ve been told that MacDonald’s The Galton Case was the turning point of the Lew Archer novels. From there, MacDonald created something very special. It’s good to know. Otherwise, I might’ve left Archer to the pile designed “To Be Read…Someday.” Now, I will certainly persevere.
And reading over the glowing tribute over at January Magazine, I'm certainly going to read more Archer novels. I have half a mind to jump ahead and read The Galton Case and then fill in the gaps. But I probably won't. Even if these books can be read in any order, I'm a stickler for order.
What I Learned As A Writer: Don’t bore the reader. Gosh, I hate to write that but it’s true. The more I learned about Sampson and witnessed Archer interact with Sampson’s family, the more I didn’t care. Sure, I liked how the Archer peeled the onion despite its smell and I loved how he took a beating but kept on moving forward. And the body count was tremendous.
Otherwise, MacDonald has a wonderful way with words. I can see why and how folks compare him with Chandler. There’s fluidity to Archer’s speech that is something special. I will travel again with him. It just won’t be right away.
And, if I needed any more incentive, try this money quote from Thrilling Detective: “Lew Archer made possible all who followed.”
That includes me. Thanks, Lew. I owe you one.