Paul here. One of my favorite mystery authors is Ross Macdonald and one of my favorite characters is his Lew Archer. I like them for a variety of reasons, but I’ll leave those for another time. Today’s guest post is by Tom Bergin, who runs the The Name is Archer Facebook group. It was started in 2014 by John Aaron, and is currently run by Tom, Lila Havens and Mike Langston. With a name like that, it’s clear that the focus of the group is Lew Archer, but it’s expanded over the years to include many other crime writers and crime films.
Tom is a lifelong reader and has been reading mystery novels since he was in grammar school. Retired now, he’s able to devote more time to a life of crime—in books and films anyway. He grew up and still lives in San Francisco with his wife. They have five children, ranging in age from 28 to 42.
So, without further ado, Tom Bergin talks about Ross Macdonald and Lew Archer:
Ross Macdonald - Connecting With The Past
Ross Macdonald has been my favorite mystery writer for forty years. One day I walked into a bookstore and spotted a volume of Dashiell Hammett’s novels. I was living in San Francisco at the time so it seemed like a sign that I should buy the book. Hammett led me to Raymond Chandler and Chandler led me to Ross Macdonald. I liked Hammett and Chandler but I loved Ross Macdonald. His writing touched something in me and I’ve been reading him ever since.
The first few Archer books were in the hard-boiled Chandler tradition. They were good books but Macdonald was eager to make his own mark on the genre. Macdonald wanted less violence in his books and more psychological insight into his characters. He wanted to write about families and family tragedies rather than gangsters and mobsters. Most critics contend that this change took place with the publication of The Galton Case in 1959. The Galton Case and the books that followed cemented Macdonald’s position next to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the pantheon of hard-boiled writers.
There are many things I love about Macdonald’s writing. The first book of his I read was The Galton Case. I was hooked and quickly read everything of his I could find. The first thing that struck me about Macdonald’s novels was the complexity and ingenuity of his plots. Plot was important to Macdonald. In his essay The Writer as Detective Hero Macdonald writes: “Chandler described a good plot as one that made for good scenes, as if the parts were greater than the whole. I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say things about it.”
Another important theme of Ross Macdonald is that things are connected in life. People are connected, ideas are connected, the past and present are connected, what one person does directly affects other people. In The Far Side of the Dollar Lew Archer says: “Life hangs together in one piece. Everything is connected with everything else. The problem is to find the connections.”
The thing I like best about the Archer books is the character of Archer himself. He’s a good man. He’s compassionate and empathetic. Archer cares about people. He has a connection with young people. Lew worries about Stella in The Far Side of the Dollar: “Generation after generation had to start from scratch and learn the world over again. It changed so rapidly that children couldn’t learn from their parents or parents from their children. The generations were like alien tribes islanded in time.” Archer’s empathy for people is one of the qualities that sets him apart from other private detectives. Even though Archer was a compassionate and caring man, he was also a realist. He knew life was hard. In The Far Side of the Dollar Stella tells him that she doesn’t see how she and Tommy are ever going to be happy. Lew replies: “Survival is the main thing.” It was a hard saying to offer a young girl. “Happiness comes in fits and snatches. I’m having more of it as I get older. The teens were my worst time.”
One of my favorite lines from all the books comes from The Far Side of the Dollar. Lew says: “Other people’s lives are my business.” The line has a dual meaning. The line is true in a literal sense. Archer’s a detective. It’s his job to investigate people’s lives but I prefer to think of the line in a different way. Other people’s lives are Lew’s business because he’s a human being. They are his business because he cares about people. Because he’s connected to them.
I’ll continue to read Ross Macdonald’s books because I’m still entertained by, and learn from, his books. In this crazy, angry, divided world we’re living in, it’s good to be reminded by a wise voice that we’re all connected and that other people’s lives are our business too.
Thank you, Tom. I really enjoyed that. And people can check out The Name is Archer at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1734000126825677