Lew Archer at 100

(Written on 12/13/2015)

I’ve read everything by Ross MacDonald two or three times, in some cases more than that: I suppose I’ve read The Chill a half-dozen times. Here in my San Francisco hotel room the new Library of America edition Four Novels of the 1950′s is at my bedside, where I’m about halfway through The Barbarous Coast.

MacDonald is a must for crime fiction fans. He is also controversial: Many serious students of the genre would argue that he is hopelessly overrated. My own trajectory is probably fairly common. I loved him as a kid, rejected him as a young man, and now concede he deserves a solid place in the pantheon…although in no way should he complete some kind of trinity with Hammett and Chandler.

Some writers just make you keep turning the pages. Once you pick up a MacDonald it is more or less impossible to put it down. At the start the books aren’t particularly exciting or dramatic. The settings are fairly sedate suburbia, the people are normal California types. But the story — admittedly, an absurdly convoluted story, I dare anyone to outline a Lew Archer tale from memory, even if they finished the book five minutes ago — the story hooks you and holds you willing captive. The best of the books, like The Chill, begin emitting a peculiar high-pitched siren as the final chapters gather the threads and the pigeons come home to roost.

The pseudo-Freud aspects of the novels get critical attention, but more impressive these days is Archer’s compassion towards young men and women. This was the era when the parents who voted for Eisenhower were furious at their hippie kids. Classic crime fiction is frequently pretty reactionary, so Lew’s gentle support of young rebels really stands out.

The Library of America edition has prompted a fair number of unimpressive think pieces claiming high levels of literary mastery for Ross MacDonald. That’s nothing new; an older generation still smarts at the 1969 cabal that took over The New York Times Book Review to anoint MacDonald work as, “The finest detective novels ever written by an American.”

Overpraise isn’t MacDonald’s fault, of course, and he remains a fun read for fans of the genre. Every year for the last 30 or so years I’ve read some Ross MacDonald, and this state of affairs shows no sign of changing. Indeed, right this minute it is time for me to get back to The Barbarous Coast.