Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer: Three Decades of California Cool

Nov 15, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

Detective novels set in California—particularly San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara (or Santa Teresa) are particularly attractive to us in the rest of the country. What makes them seem out of the ordinary involves both the paradise syndrome of the California that exists only in our imaginations, as well as the schadenfreude we experience as the underside of the great Hollywood dream factory is lovingly detailed in fiction —especially detective fiction.

The shopworn, uncompromising edge of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade was my first exposure to a hardboiled detective in John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon. Humphrey Bogart once again did the honors for me in Howard Hawke’s film of The Big Sleep, this time as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Bogart was a good fit for Marlowe too, as far as I could see, but it wasn’t until I read both Hammett and Chandler later as a guilty pleasure when I was in college that the differences in the authors’ styles of writing struck me. Both detectives had much in common as characters, but Hammett told his stories without embellishment, while atmosphere and description were as important to Chandler as lean dialogue and twisting plots were to both.

Neither Hammett nor Chandler were nearly as prolific in writing novels as Macdonald, who had the luxury of many more years than his predecessors to write as California and the US moved on toward the 21st century. Initially, Macdonald’s style is almost as lean as Hammett’s, but Macdonald’s novels explore his characters’ inner territory and study them with a tragedian’s insight into their fate. Hammett’s leave analysis alone. Chandler’s chilly sensuousness repels as much as it invites the reader to see what happens next.

Ross Macdonald’s Archer novels are set in the same state as that of his predecessors, but his books change our focus from city detective work to what happens outside the big cities, moving his characters into the suburbs and small towns of Southern California after WWII. Archer is the natural heir to Spade and Marlowe, assuming the era’s mantle of the “antihero” we know so well in American film and fiction, during and after the Korean conflict. Archer realized, like his predecessors, that he couldn’t fix what was broken, and adroitly used his outsider status to become the only rectifying element in the chaos he encountered from case to

bookSometimes I regret that my first exposure to Lew Archer was in the movie Harper starring Paul Newman. Newman understood the character of Lew Archer all right. It’s just that the irony is inescapable that a lavishly produced, star studded vehicle with a Hollywood icon cast in the role of Ross Macdonald’s low key, anti-establishment, low-maintenance private eye is a contradiction in terms. Despite any misgivings I have about it, a second Harper movie transplanted to New Orleans was filmed, The Drowning Pool, and plans for a third were in the works before falling through, but hey, that’s show business.

Fortunately, Archer is still there on the shelf for us, taking his place alongside Spade and Marlowe. More good news is that Macdonald’s influence lives on in the detectives of John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker and Randy Wayne White, to name but a very few. The focus of our more current detectives has changed with the times too, and it’s fascinating.

Check out other mystery and fantasy related articles, reviews & short stories in our Books & Tales category. You can also find a lot of Halloween fun this entire month!

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.


  1. I enjoyed this article! Haven’t read any of Ross MacDonald’s books yet & am looking greatly forward to them!

    • Thanks, Brenda. I like to listen to Chet Baker or Chris Botti when I read Macdonald. It’s part of that west coast cool thing that Macdonald is a part of.

  2. Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.

  3. Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.


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