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 Way Some People Die


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’.

Here I’ve come up with a list from the third Archer novel, The Way Some People Die, which is in some ways the absolute best of the series.  I hope to be posting a more comprehensive, thorough essay about it soon.  For page references I’m using the 2007 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition.

1.     The Archer code – money is unimportant, or at any rate less important than moving in and out of people’s lives.
On pps. 190 and 191 Archer refuses Speed’s bribe with “You can’t buy me.”
2. The excellence of the portrayal of minor characters.
In this novel they abound, starting with Galley’s co worker Audrey Graham, then the landlord Raisch, the aspiring boxer Simmie, the crowd at the wrestling match, the old captain at the dock where Archer and Mario go to try and find Mario’s boat, and on and on.  Excellent writing, superb characterization, throughout.
3.     The “look into the past”.
Here this only occurs with Mrs. Lawrence, Galley’s mother, and not necessarily in a way that bears on the case at hand.  “My sensation of stepping into the past was getting too strong for comfort.”  “She didn’t like the look of the present at all.” (p.5)
4.     The ecology and sociology of California.
There are a few strong passages about the sea in the novel, as well as this social commentary: “There were thousands like him in my ten-thousand-square-mile beat: boys who had lost their futures, their parents and themselves in the shallow jerry-built streets of the coastal cities; boys with hot-rod bowels, comic-book imaginations, daring that grew up too late for one war, too early for another.” (p. 135)
5.     The excellence of the similes.
From the first – “The half-armed chair closed on me like a hand” (p.5) to the last “We sat together like strangers mourning at the funeral of a common friend” (p. 242) – the standard Macdonald sets is very high.
6.     The influence of World War Two.
On p. 34 Archer recollects a brigadier general he knew “in Colon during the war” who hunted sharks in the open seas.  On p. 49 Keith Dalling tells Archer was a navigator on a PBY “during the war”.  On p. 167 Marjorie reveals that she believes the insane lie Speed told her, that he served under Patton.
7.     The convergence of the past and the present.
Not applicable.
8.     What Ross Macdonald himself called “smothered allegiance and uncertain identity”.
On p. 80 it’s revealed that Keith Dalling masqueraded as a cop and went to Mrs. Lawrence to urge her to hire Archer to find Galley.  The old woman had no idea who he really is or what his relation to her daughter is.
9.     Bitten fingernails.
“But I noticed after a while that I was tapping one heel on the floor in staccato rhythm and beginning to bite my left thumbnail.” (p.159)  “The hand crawled over the bill.  I noticed that its nails were broken and bleeding.”  (p. 174)  “Its fingernails were bitten down to the quick.”  (p. 186)
10.      Eyebrows.
“His eyebrows moved.” (p. 73)
11.     Female breasts.
“She was breathing quickly, her sharp breasts rising and falling under the blouse.” (p.55)  “Her young red-sweatered breasts leaned at the open window, urgently.” (p.116)  “She rose on her knees and elbows, her breasts sharp-pointed at the floor, the blunt gun in her right hand pointed at me.”  (p. 227)
12. Suntans.
Not applicable.
13.  A character in a case expressing surprise at how much Archer knows about them.
On p. 233 Galley starts to ask Archer, “How do you know that?” when he reveals he knows she kept her dead husband’s body in the freezer for three days.  She cuts herself off too late.
14.   Rich people are unhappy.
Not really relevant here; one of the few Archer novels in which it is not.
15.   Archer displays knowledge he shouldn’t have about the arts or literature; Macdonald cannot resist the temptation.
On p. 64 Archer observes that Dalling’s kitchen looks as if it were done by “an expressionist scene designer”.   “They watched me with great dark eyes full of silent envy, as if Achilles was fighting Hector inside…” (p. 117)  On p. 172 he uses the vocabulary word “chorybantic”. 
16.  “Something” as in “Are you a detective or something?”  “Something.”
No instance of this in this novel.
17.   Old letters.
On p. 66 Archer finds Jane Starr Hammond’s letter to Dalling.
18.    Overheard conversations.
19.   Eyes.
Characters’ eyes, and their states and/or conditions, are referred to so many times in this novel that I am tempted to call this a glaring flaw.  Here are the page numbers of the numerous examples: 3, 12, 15, 33, 36, 38, 42, 58, 74, 75, 86, 89, 97, 112, 125, 172, 178, 228, 233.
20.   Britishisms. 
Several characters, all of them American born thugs and miscreants, refer to Archer as “old man”.  When he eats a steak dinner he calls the French fries “potato chips”.

QUOTE OF THE BOOK:    “Parking spaces in downtown Hollywood were as scarce as the cardinal virtues.” (p. 67)

1 comment:

  1. Hi -- having just finished reading this one, you might want to revise #3, the look into the past. This occurs quite powerfully much later in the book as well. Archer has just gotten out of the morgue where presumably Joe Tarantine's body is on the slab; he walks into George's cafe to wait for some results. Some of his observations fit neatly into your category:

    "Everything in the place...had the air of having been there for a long time"
    " a time capsule buried deep beyond the reach of change"
    "The potato chips...tasted exactly the same as the chips I ate ot of greasy newspaper wrappings when I was in grade school in Oakland in 1920..."
    "The rush and whirl of bar conversation sounded like history"

    I agree with you that Archer's sensitivity to the past, his ability to be moved by memory, is one of the things that makes him highly sympathetic. It also pushes MacDonald's writing further into the realm of literature, past genre, past Chandler, in my book. Thanks for your blog!