Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Ross Macdonald: Archerian Characteristics: The Moving Target




In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books.  I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list.  They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels.  Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers.  In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

Below I reproduce the list and apply it to The Moving Target.  I’m using the Vintage/Black Lizard edition from March, 1998.

1.     The Archer code – money is unimportant, or at any rate less important than moving in and out of people’s lives.  Betty Fraley offers to let Archer keep the $100,000 ransom money for Sampson if he lets her go.  He refuses.
2.     The excellence of the portrayal of minor characters.  Not as strong here as it will be in coming novels in the series, though the Sampson’s houseman, Felix, is excellently done.
3.     The “look into the past”.  Nothing.
4.     The ecology and sociology of CaliforniaA subplot of the novel concerns smuggling in illegal immigrants, and there are several intense passages about the Pacific.
5.     The excellence of the similes.  In every Archer novel they are almost too numerous to quote and mention.  Here are two: “The bitterness had come through in her voice, buzzing like a wasp.” (p. 7)  “
6.     The influence of World War Two.  “Bob Sampson was a flier, too.  Shot down over Sakashima.”  (p. 17) “I ran a town in Bavaria for two years.  Military Government.” (p.20)
7.     The convergence of the past and the present.  Nothing.
8.     What Ross Macdonald himself called “smothered allegiance and uncertain identity”.  Nada.
9.     Bitten fingernails.  Nothing on this in this novel.
10.   Eyebrows. Nothing on this in this novel.
11.   Female breasts.  “Her light brown coat fell open in front, and her small sweatered breasts, pointed like weapons, were half impatient promise, half gradual threat.” (p. 107)
12.  Suntans. “She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark that her flesh seemed hard.” (p. 5)
13.     A character in a case expressing surprise at how much Archer knows about them.  She uttered a groan of surprise and shock…”What do you know about Taggert?”  (p. 219)
14.      Rich people are unhappy.  It’s virtually a given in every Archer novel and doesn’t require any elucidation.  It’s a jaundiced view; study after study after study shows that in proportion the rich are no more unhappy than anybody else.
15.      Archer displays knowledge he shouldn’t have about the arts or literature; Macdonald cannot resist the temptation.  “And I was talking a hell of a lot, talking like somebody out of Miles Standish.” (p. 98)  On p. 166 Archer uses the word “prognathous”.   On p. 199, “sibilant”. Come on!!
16.   “Something” as in “Are you a detective or something?”  “Something.”   ““I’m not exactly sure why you’re here.  Is it to track Ralph down, or something like that?”  “Something like that.”(p. 13)
17.  Old letters.  It’s not quite an old letter but similar in function – on p. 30 Archer finds an old photo of Fay Estabrook that she had autographed for Sampson.  And two letters composed in the present play important roles.
18.    Overheard conversations.  From p. 150 – 153 Archer eavesdrops on Marcie and Puddler.  On p. 206 he does so with Troy, Marcie, Fay Estabrook, and Betty Fraley.
19.   Eyes.  “I looked down into her eyes, the eyes of something frightened and sick hiding in the fine brown body.” (p.6)  “Mrs. Estabrook looked up at us with eyes like dark searchlights.” (p. 49)   “His opaque black eyes were their own mask.” (p. 170)  “Her eyes were glistening like wet brown pebbles.” (p. 203)
20.   Britishisms.  “On the chesterfield in front of the dead fireplace…” (p. 29)

BEST QUOTE OF THE BOOK: “The operator was a frozen virgin who dreamed about men at night and hated them in the daytime.” (p.27)




Ross Macdonald: Characteristics of the Archer Novels



In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books.  I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list.  They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels.  Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers.  In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

1.     The Archer code – money is unimportant, or at any rate less important than moving in and out of people’s lives.
2.     The excellence of the portrayal of minor characters.
3.     The “look into the past”.
4.     The ecology and sociology of California.
5.     The excellence of the similes.
6.     The influence of World War Two.
7.     The convergence of the past and the present.
8.     What Ross Macdonald himself called “smothered allegiance and uncertain identity”.
9.     Bitten fingernails.
10.  Eyebrows.
11.   Female breasts.
12.    Suntans.
13.    A character in a case expressing surprise at how much Archer knows about them.
14.     Rich people are unhappy.
15.      Archer displays knowledge he shouldn’t have about the arts or literature; Macdonald cannot resist the temptation.
16.    “Something” as in “Are you a detective or something?”  “Something.”
17.    Old letters.
18.     Overheard conversations.
19.     Eyes.
20.     Britishisms.  


Ross Macdonald - Black Money



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     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.  The formula endures a long time in excellent form, right up to Sleeping Beauty, though by the time of The Blue Hammer Macdonald seems to be out of gas.  In my opinion Black Money has to be ranked right at the top of this group of novels, just a notch or so below The Chill (which is Macdonald’s masterpiece).
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            Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well.  In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.”  Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.  It is so smothered, in fact, that the only person who knows anything about it, Tappinger’s wife Bess, says nothing to anyone for years; no one else knows.  Ginny tells Archer “It got so shabby, making love in the backs of cars, or in his office, or in a public motel.  Sometimes I felt as if everyone on the campus, everyone in town, must know about us.  But nobody ever said a word.”  And the issue of uncertain identity is all about Francis Martel, the phony Frenchman who swoops into town and marries Ginny. 
            These are, plainly, serious issues for any novelist to take up.  In the reference book I mentioned above Macdonald also wrote “Fiction writers are often prepared for their calling by difficult childhoods in which families have known happier days.”  What is this statement but a summary of most of the Archer tales?  Family problems, obviously, are Macdonald’s real theme.  It remains for us to investigate his various variations on the formula(s) he developed. 

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            As I mentioned in discussing The Drowning Pool, one of the real pleasures of reading Macdonald is his appreciation of all kinds of people, especially his minor characters, and the way he can communicate the essence of a person in just a  sentence  or two.  Here are three quick examples from Black Money:
            The lifeguard at the pool at the club: “With quiet pride, he glanced down at his bronzed pectorals.”
            The bellman in the Breakwater: “The bellhop wore an old blue uniform which looked as if he had fought through the Civil War in it.”
            An alcoholic in the hobo jungle: “He came up close to me so that I could smell his firey breath and look deep into the glaring hollows of his eyes.  They had a feverish brainwashed wino emptiness.  He was so far gone that he would never come back."


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            As any strong author does, Macdonald, in the Archer tales, comes back to the same themes and motifs again and again and again.  Black Money contains excellent examples of all of the following things that are signature examples of the Macdonald style:
  1. The excellence of the minor characters
  2. Eyes “looking into the past”
  3. The excellence of similes
  4. Archer’s code and reasons for his work
  5. The ecology and sociology of California, especially the ocean
  6. The “smothered allegiance” and “uncertain identity” referenced above
  7. The effects of World War Two on some characters
  8. The links between the past and present.  
Let us quickly go through this tentative list one by one, citing some examples:

  1. I’ve already listed some of the minor characters’ descriptions above, and I’ll just quickly note here that the characters of Mrs. Grantham, Mrs. Sejkar, and Ward Rasmussen are all superlative as well. Vera, the Jamieson’s housekeeper, may be the best of all.
  2. Way before Neuro Linguistic Programming made the idea popular, Macdonald seems to have grasped that when a person’s eyes make certain movements the person is involved in an exercise of memory.  A gem of an instance of this from Black Money takes place when Archer interviews Dr. Sylvester in his office: “His eyes were bleak, looking past me at his life.”
  3. There are so many excellent similes in the book that it would be impossible to single them all out.  One example: “His head looked like a minor accident on top of his huge neck and shoulders.”
  4. “Money isn’t the only thing in life.”  Archer consistently, repeatedly, always, turns down easy bribes.
  5. Of the lifeguard he has a conversation with at the club, Archer observes:”The trouble was that there were thousands of him, neo-primitives who didn’t seemt o belong to the modern world.”   The novels are filled with observations of the people of California such as this, as they are of sentences about the Pacific Ocean such as “Beyond it lay the changing blue mystery of the sea.”
  6. We briefly touched on smothered allegiance and uncertain identity above.
  7. Tappinger was an infantryman in the war, participating in the Liberation of Paris.
  8. Throughout the novels Archer makes numerous comments about the inevitable connections between the past and the present.  A representative selection from this particular novel – “Past and present were coming together.  I had a moment of claustrophobia in the phone booth, as if I was caught between converging walls.”


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             Of course, in reading a series with a continuing character such as Archer we have to sweep away the realization that, if this were real life, such a detective would be famous; a lot of the people he encounters would know who he is and as a consequence he would be unable to do his work.  In the course of this novel more than thirty characters cross paths with Archer, some for the whole length of the book, some for just an instant.  For now we may simply list them here and as time goes on fill in a little - very little - elucidation on the participation of each.  This is not in any particular order:
Peter Jamieson  - Peter is essentially a good, honest, earnest, decent person.  He brings Archer into the case based on his childlike, na├»ve, delusional faith in his relationship with Ginny.  The scene in which he devours the stuffed goose in his kitchen at night – unaware that Archer is observing him – is one of the best scenes I have ever encountered in any literature of any kind.

Ginny Fablon – Some of Ginny’s behavior, like Tappinger’s, is incomprehensible and inexplicable.  At the end she actually believes that Martel was a direct descendant of Sir Francis Drake and that he found Drake’s treasure of Peruvian gold on the coast of Panama!

Martel – The linchpin of the entire novel, Martel is also the focal point of its largest credibility gap – why wouldn’t Archer simply call the French embassy in Washington and check his story? 

Mrs. Bagshaw - A character necessitated by the plot, she leases her house to Martel.

Harry Hendricks – “An air of desperate failure hung about him like a personal odor.”  This is one of the first thoughts Archer has about Harry when first meeting him.  And he is, unfortunately, a loser of this caliber.  He bungles everything he touches, including his marriage to the beautiful Kitty.  Martel beats him up and stuffs him in the trunk of his own car; the beating is so serious that Archer has to put him in the hospital. 

Leo Spillman - Though he is actually seen in the novel for only half a page – after he has become a vegetable – Spillman is the driving force behind everything, winning wives and daughters in card games, stealing Kitty away from Hendricks, etc.  He rips off Davis and is in turn ripped off by Martel.  For Macdonald he represents unadorned greed, naked lust for money.  Money is always a corrupting influence in Macdonald, a literary stance that might not be the most unbiased or mature.

Marietta Fablon – The hopeless entanglement of knots that is Marietta’s life is brilliantly conveyed by Macdonald with sentences such as “I could smell her fatigue” and “The residue of her life came out with the words.  I could feel it leave her body.” Amazing writing!!

Dr. Sylvester – Sylvester is one of the types of characters Macdonald excels at, someone who seems to be immersed in the thick of the action and could plausibly be considered a major suspect for a time (both by the reader and by Archer) but who is really ignorant of the main facts at the heart of the case.  When Archer first drives up to Mrs. Fablon’s house early in the novel Sylvester is there, having lunch with her.  Seeing Archer, he quickly leaves.  We don’t know then, as we will deep in the story, that all his problems in life have developed from money and from gambling.  I have an original hardcover edition of this novel from 1966 which states, on the dust jacket, “Running through the case, as a central theme in this morally disturbing novel, is the corrupting influence of the underworld and its money in our society.”  Doubtless the centuries old theme “Money is the root of all evil” is present in Black Money, but Macdonald’s thoroughgoing pessimism about money and about rich people, not only here but in most of his work, seems a bit cartoonish to me.

Jamieson Sr.- A middle aged alcoholic, Peter's father is nevertheless the one character who seems to be able to see things with a lucidity bordering on coldness.  He realizes, for example, that Ginny doesn't love Peter and must have agreed to marry him for some other reason.  Macdonald provides a moment of comedy when he has Jamieson pretend to be reading a book and holds it upside down.

Vera - It isn't easy to summarize the way Macdonald gets across the fact that she really runs the Jamieson household, but in the two brief scenes in which she appears he does exactly that.  Somehow the idea that she is much more than a servant gets conveyed.

Lifeguard - Referenced briefly above, and the impetus for a little bit of Archerian philosophy about the shallowness of California youth.

Ella Strome - A witty, worldy flirt, twice divorced.  Archer likes her but their banter goes nowhere due to the swift moving events of the case.

Tappinger – The twisted deviousness of Tappinger’s mind is, like Ginny’s thinking, hard to penetrate.  When Ginny mocks him about “the luminous city” (which he had told Archer about, in those exact words, earlier) he can no longer stand to be alive and shoots himself in the head.  The image of him holding Fablon down in the pool, with the pole, drowning him, is especially uncomfortable for the reader to take.

Bess Tappinger - I have a 1990 Warner Books paperback edition of this novel.  The blurb on the back cover highlights, incredibly, Bess Tappinger's infatuation with Archer as the main plot point.  Whatever!  Her scenes from first to last are extraordinary.  Macdonald perceptively writes of her as the young wife, trapped in a loveless marriage, knowing her husband is carrying on with another, younger woman, unable to do anything, trying to be a good mother to her young children.  Her confession to Archer of how she concealed all her critical information for so many years is really, convincingly, heartbreaking.

Stoll -"He was a handsome cold-eyed man of forty, overdressed, with the little graces of a pleaser and a pleaser's lack of resonance."  
Audrey Sylvester - Adultress.
Eric Malkovsky "...like a human clue."  
3 winos - A portrait so accurate and on the mark that I'm hesitant to even comment.
Bellhop "He stroked the growth of beard on his chin.  It looked like moth-eaten gray plush, but it rasped like sandpaper."
3 sharpies - Ditto commentary on winos.



Kitty Hendricks – She and Archer have some great dramatic scenes together – in the room at the Breakwater, out in the hobo jungle, and at Spillman’s house  by the pool where she says, of herself and her life, in a pathetic misunderstanding of the entire cosmos, “Nobody had to tell me.  A woman with my looks – I can pick and choose.”

Spillman’s nurse - She wants her pay from Kitty Hendricks!  Idealistically devoted to the care of her patient
Spillman, yet worldly enough to know,or at least to sense, that something is dramatically wrong with Kitty's and Spillman's situation.

Mrs. Grantham - Rooming house landlords and landladies like this pop up in the Archers with some regularity.  Cf. Mr. Raisch in The Way Some People Die.

Martel's mother - No comments just now.

Cashier in the hospital – “The cashier of Mercy Hospital had eyes like calculators.”

Mrs. Sejkar - Awesome: "The pictures on the walls were all religious, and there were so many of them that they suggested a line of defense against the world."



Allan Bosch - It seems to me that Bosch knows way, way more about Martel than any college professor would about a student they taught for a short time.  In fact Archer even asks him, "How can you possibly know all this, professor?"  But the explanation offered isn't plausible; I also find it a little troubling that Archer gets critical information about Tappinger and Bess from Bosch - this seems a bit too neat.  Be these issues as they may, Macdonald does a great job of writing the cafeteria scene between Bosch and Archer.  "When his minute steak arrived he cut it meticulously into small pieces which he failed to eat."  "He toyed with the drk meat congealing on his plate."

Ward Rasmussen - An idealistic young cop, perhaps meant to be a reflection of the young Archer.

McMinn - Apparently Macdonald's stereotypical idea of a young banker.

Pit Boss - The kind of right hand, strong arm man who appeared frequently in the earlier Archers.

Davis – Davis, the shady Vegas casino owner and Spillman’s former partner (Spillman ripped him off) is the kind of character Macdonald is very weak with, a sort who appears frequently in the Archer books before The Doomsters (in which Macdonald began to acquire the virtuosity that allowed him to do a whole book without having to lean on such Hammetesque/Chandleresque types quite so heavily).

Davis’ thugs - Scenery.

Gamblers - "She was a nice looking girl with a cultivated voice, and she reminded me of Ginny.  The man who stood beside her and provided her with money wore furry black sideburns and dude clothes, including high-heeled boots. ...His hand kept slipping lower on her back."  Later, when Archer leaves Davis and is exiting the casino, this girl is with somebody else.

Marco the bartender - Marco is one of the few characters – perhaps the only one – who is not involved in law enforcement (Colton, Walters, Mackey) or some other professional capacity (the newspaper researcher in the first two Archer tales) who appears in more than one of the novels; he turns up again in The Goodbye Look.