Gravity’s Angel

Ross Macdonald’s private detective Lew Archer fought a solitary war against greed and murder on the coast

When Ross Macdonald finished what would become his final detective novel, he knew the genre was changing.

Perhaps for that reason few of the victims are entirely blameless, few of the killers wholly unsympathetic. In 1968’s The Instant Enemy, also reissued this month (Vintage, 288 pages, $14.95), Archer’s search for a high school girl who’s run of with her boyfriend sucks him into a labyrinth of abandonment and betrayal reaching back four generations. No one reading Macdonald doubts the existence of karma. But the crimes that captured the popular imagination in the ’70s were more impersonal, less explicable. Serial killer Ted Bundy—not yet identified—was murdering Washington State coeds the way another man might binge on booze. The DEA’s assault on drugs blurred the line between good guys and bad, pitting satin-shirted dealers who styled themselves as freedom fighters against undercover cops—officially sanctioned hoods faster with a .44 Magnum than with a metaphor. In that company a private dick with a paternal streak— especially one as guiltracked as Archer—was an anachronism. He spends the first dozen books beating himself up for a divorce that took place before the series began, and when he finally gets around to a brief dalliance in 1969’s The Goodbye Look, his idea of sweet nothings is a line like “I have a secret passion for mercy…but justice is what keeps happening to people.”

The Blue Hammer left little doubt that an era was over. At the book’s end Archer, if not exactly married off by his fond progenitor, has been allowed to embark on a promising relationship with a young newspaperwoman. It’s a farewell more poignant than readers realized. As Tom Nolan’s 1999 biography of Macdonald shows, he had already, unknowingly, begun to suffer symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Yet consider The Blue Hammer’s plot. A junior curator at a small California museum suspects that a major donor is misstating the provenance of a painting. His clumsy efforts to uncover the truth reverberate in all echelons of his city’s insular art world and eventually bring law enforcement officials to the museum’s doorstep. If you substitute Santa Ana for a loosely disguised Santa Barbara and Thai antiquities for oil paintings, the story is up to the minute. In fact, reading the Archer novels now, three decades after Macdonald stopped writing them, is a lot like looking outside our own door.

When the first Archer novel, The Moving Target, was published in 1949, Macdonald had already written four crime novels under his real name, Kenneth Millar. The book’s plot is a noir mash-up of kidnapping and double-dealing, but Archer shines. Disillusioned by a stint with the Long Beach Police Department and hardened by service in World War II, he’s the perfect observer: presentable enough for the country club, louche enough for a dive, and self-aware enough to question his motives in either place. “I was a good Joe after all,” he notes in the midst of pumping a suspect. “Consorter with roughnecks… rat behind the walls, hired gun to anybody with fifty dollars a day.” In action he’s a classic western hero—immune to payoffs, indefatigable. His doubts make him interesting.

Macdonald and his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar, were Canadians who had settled in Santa Barbara during the war. (Macdonald served in the Pacific.) The seaview mansions and mountain-dwarfed main street of that city, fictionalized as Santa Theresa, became a starting point for Archer’s first case and a recurring backdrop for the series. The Moving Target is full of period detail— a seedy Hollywood club where hot jazz mixes with drugs still referred to as the white stuff; a classy night on the town that means Mid Wilshire, home of the Ambassador and Perino’s. But it’s hard to imagine Macdonald’s characters in the seamed stockings and baggy suits of that long-gone era. The war-hero pilot of an oil magnate’s plane, who’s half a son and half a servant, and the magnate’s daughter, Radcliffe educated but spinning her wheels in the family manse, foreshadow coming generations. They’re would-be rebels drowning in privilege.

For Macdonald, wealth in postwar California is as impossible to ignore as an earthquake. His characters are bent by its presence and by its absence, but he has a softer spot for an up-from-the-gutter dreamer with dollars on his mind than for a tight-lipped moralist condemning the root of all evil. “The light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning money,” Archer announces on page one of The Moving Target. His descriptions become less stylized but no less adamant in later novels. A client’s house in The Blue Hammer is “a sprawling pile of white stucco and red tile, set on the highest point in Santa Theresa. The only things higher were the mountains standing behind the city and a red-tailed hawk cir-cling in the bright October sky.”

Not everyone was impressed. Raymond Chandler scolded Macdonald for dropping $3 metaphors into dime novel plots (“acned with rust” was one he hated). For other readers, that hybrid dialect was—and is—the sound of Southern California, the idiom of overweening architectural fantasies crammed into narrow neighborhood lots, of spacious boulevards lined with tanning salons. There was innovative pleasure to be had, too, in tweaking expectations. Macdonald’s take on detective fiction was something like the jazz piece he describes in The Moving Target: “Three or four hackneyed boogie chords were laid down and repeated. Then the right hand wove through them, twisting them alive.”

The twist in Macdonald’s case was autobiography. California wasn’t just a fabled land when he was growing up in Ontario; it was a personal Eden, the place where he’d been born and where his family had, for a while, been intact. In Canada he’d been passed around among relatives and had struggled to get an education. Returning to California with his wife and daughter, Macdonald envisioned an idyllic his-and-hers writing life. Instead, his daughter was unhappy and rebellious, a secret drinker and sometime runaway. In the books the dream and the anguish intertwine. Macdonald revels in the landscape—the birds tilting on the thermals, the sudden green after winter rains—and creates legions of disappearing fathers, needy mothers, and troubled adolescents who recall his own. Psychology and setting amplify each other. The initial complaint Archer investigates is never what it seems. The teen runaway becomes a kidnapper, or is she a victim of an earlier crime? Is a confession a buried memory or a hallucination? The generations don’t stay put either. Grown-up clients demand the irresponsibility of youth while their children have long ago appointed themselves their parents’ guardians. The clues drive Archer from Woodland Hills to Malibu, Santa Barbara to Pacific Palisades, looping through past and present like time’s just another kind of freeway interchange.

In the 1970s, rock and roll was doing its own literate reworking of genre clichés, and Macdonald was embraced by a younger audience, including Rolling Stone critic Paul Nelson and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, who claimed he moved to Santa Barbara because of the Archer novels. Like the romantic outsiders enshrined by Dylan or the Eagles, Archer was battered but not cynical. An ethics committee of one, he cast a sympathetic eye on the varieties of youthful excess others of his generation scorned. Meanwhile Macdonald’s cadences sang off the page: “The short hairs and the long hairs, the potheads and the acid heads, draft dodgers and dollar chasers, swingers and walking wounded, idiot saints, hard cases, foolish virgins.”

Today a reader discovering the novels might see Archer as a warrior monk, compassionate and detached. Certainly his comment “I like people, and I try to be of some service,” in 1966’s Black Money, has the chewed-off modesty we might expect from a far west bodhisattva. Archer, who disdained undercover work, turns out to have a chameleon-like ability to be whomever we want him to be. Or maybe we’ve just orbited around him. Ride the highways Archer once rode, from Santa Barbara to Dana Point. The wealth on display is staggering, the women still mostly frosted blonds. Stop for a meal: The view is celestial, the talk at adjacent tables about “dysfunctional families” and “prescription relief.” We are all, wherever we live on this smiling coast, either failing to give our children what they need or hampering them with privilege. We’re either trying to get away from our parents or shoring them up. Mercy, Macdonald knew, was never part of the deal in paradise. It takes an outsider like Archer to smuggle it in.

Photoillustration by Thomas Allen