For anyone who's ever been enthralled by one of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels, the elements of this scene must seem hauntingly familiar.
A talented young man, an artist, stands poised at the brink of great success, but also teetering on the edge of personal disaster. He's the child of a failed marriage, with a failing marriage of his own. He's still haunted by childhood memories of his father's absence; his rearing by a sickly mother and a domineering grandmother; and how he was subjected to great familial expectations that he feels he can never live up to, even having to bear the name of a revered uncle -- a golden boy who had, himself, died young, been killed in action, a war hero. At a crucial point in his life and career, this young artist must come to terms with all the schisms, past and present, in his life: his painful childhood, the pull between popular and artistic success, and a dangerous descent into booze and drugs. Then one day, the doorbell rings at his recently purchased Santa Barbara home -- a mansion, really -- where he still doesn't feel at home. The young man is truly on the edge, sweating through withdrawal, and there at the door is an older man, soft-spoken, in a suit and tie, sporting a fedora, come to save his life.
In the books, the caller would be Lew Archer. But this is real life, and the man at the door was actually Kenneth Millar, known to the world as Ross Macdonald, private-eye novelist supreme and the creator of Lew Archer. And the troubled young man? He was Warren Zevon, singer/songwriter and rock 'n' roll piano fighter, riding high -- too high -- after the success of his 1978 breakthrough single, Werewolves of London. Millar, who had met Zevon briefly only once before (but knew that he was an avid Archer fan), spent the afternoon with the songwriter, talking about writing and plants and alcoholism. The next day, bolstered by his conversation with one of his idols, Zevon found the strength to re-enter his detox program. He never saw Millar again.
This story has always been a favorite of mine, from the time I first read it years ago in the pages of Rolling Stone, and it has since been reiterated in Tom Nolan's powerful new book, Ross Macdonald: A Biography. The story was originally related by Paul Nelson, during the course of an article he wrote about Zevon. Nelson had been a close friend of Zevon's, and was aware of his deep affection for the novels of Millar/Macdonald. Nelson himself knew Macdonald from having conducted a rather lengthy interview with him a few years previously, and it was at Nelson's suggestion that Macdonald had intervened in the young musician's life. As Zevon recalled, in another Rolling Stone interview, years later, "At the lowest point in my life the doorbell rang. And there, quite literally, was Lew Archer, on a compassionate mission, come to save my life."
How perfect. How right. For any of us whose lives have been touched by the compassionate missions of Lew Archer, the Zevon tale isn't so much a surprise as a confirmation of what we might have suspected: that Ross Macdonald was not far removed from his great creation. As he himself was fond of saying, "I'm not Lew Archer, exactly, but Archer is me."
In one way or another, Lew Archer has saved many of our lives, or at least made them more livable -- even if the character did nothing more than show us that we weren't as alone as we'd thought.
What was it that made (and continues to make) so many people feel strongly about Ross Macdonald's work? Why do people, after having read one novel, wish to consume the others, even when they discover that, following The Galton Case (1959), Macdonald was more or less writing the same book, over and over?
Undoubtedly, Macdonald's connections to Canada had some personal reverberations for me, being Canadian myself (and, therefore, perhaps overly preoccupied by questions of cultural identity, questions that most Americans could never understand -- although the half-Canadian Macdonald certainly would have). But to be honest, I only discovered his Canadian connections long after I had already read most of his books.
No, the real connection for me, as for many others, has to do with one of Macdonald's pet themes: lost children. His books are full of them. Young people lost to themselves, lost to their parents, lost from their parents. Most people I know who are Archer fans galloped through the series in their late teens and early 20s, a time when most of us are already feeling a bit lost ourselves. And in those stories of missing and misplaced kids, broken families and generational warfare and the secret histories that surround us, dogging our footsteps, along comes Lew Archer -- understanding, patient, dedicated to saving lost children and examining the shattered pieces and hidden truths of dysfunctional families. The P.I. as father figure.
Macdonald's own connections to his tales were personal, too. Even stronger than his readers'.
Although he was born in Los Gatos, California (near San Francisco), on December 13, 1915, Ken Millar was reared and educated in Canada. His mother, a never particularly healthy woman, fobbed him off to a succession of relatives after she and Millar's father, a sailor/poet/newspaper editor, separated in 1919. Millar once wrote: "I counted the number of rooms I had lived in during my first sixteen years, and got a total of fifty." This sense of rootlessness, coupled with the recognition of how an absent parent can leave a hole in one's life, were to become recurring motifs in Millar's fiction.
He attended boarding schools, and in 1938, took a break from his studies at Canada's University of Western Ontario to travel for a year through Europe, during which he visited Nazi Germany. He returned to Ontario, to the Kitchener-Waterloo area, and married his high school sweetheart, Margaret Sturm. After that, he taught high school, and would zip across the border during summer sessions to acquire advanced degrees and a Phi Beta Kappa key from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 1939, the Millars' daughter, Linda Jane, was born. Two years later, after accepting a fellowship at Michigan, Millar moved his family to Ann Arbor, where he began a Ph.D. program in English (which would culminate with his thesis on British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge).
In 1941, Margaret Millar published her own first mystery novel, The Invisible Worm, convincing her husband (who had helped her with the book) that he should try his hand at writing fiction. Amidst his studies, in 1944 Millar managed to publish one thriller, The Dark Tunnel (inspired, in part, by his visit to Nazi Germany), before joining the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II and serving as communications officer aboard a Pacific escort carrier, perhaps unconsciously -- or even consciously -- following in his seaman father's footsteps. While he was stationed in California, Margaret went to visit him, and the couple decided to move to America's West Coast. For most of the rest of their lives, they lived in Santa Barbara. At this point, Ken Millar had gone full circle, returning to his birthplace, with a family once more.
Life was good. Or at least it appeared to be. By the late 40s, both Millars had begun publishing regularly, making just enough money to get by. Ken Millar penned his first four novels under his own name, but starting with The Moving Target in 1949 -- the book that introduced private detective Lew Archer -- he adopted pen names, first "John Macdonald," then "John Ross Macdonald," and finally "Ross Macdonald." With each new book, he became more convinced that his success as a novelist was assured.
Yet his past would not be denied -- it lurked, waiting to pounce. Millar was ambivalent about his move to California. He later wrote of how "the crossing of the border failed to dispel my dual citizen's sense of illegitimacy, and probably deepened it." And his family life was less than ideal. There were difficulties in his marriage, including more than a little intense professional rivalry and even jealousy between Ken and Margaret, with their only child invariably caught in the middle. A situation that would come back to haunt Macdonald, and shape his fiction.
I think it's hard, at a certain age, or perhaps any age, to read a Lew Archer novel and not feel something. There is something compelling in those sprawling, but tightly-plotted family sagas, and in the lonely, gentle outsider who arrives on the scene, not to solve, or even condemn, so much as to attempt to understand, that speaks to that part of us which may question our own lives. Many people who consider themselves fans of Macdonald and Archer confess to similar stories of discovery. More than a few have used the term "rite of passage."
And it makes sense. For most of us, even those fortunate enough to come from "good" families, those years stranded between adolescence and full-blown adulthood are when we start to come into our own, to stake out our own lives, to question our familial and societal roles, and to begin to look upon our parents as fellow adults -- even try to understand them. With this comes the realization that there is so much we don't know about our families and ourselves. And that many of the "truths" we've grown up with, even based our lives on, are in fact -- and at best -- convenient lies.
(Rocker Courtney Love, widow of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, once theorized why Nirvana's defining album, Nevermind, sold so many copies. It's quite simple, she explained: Every kid from a dysfunctional family went out and bought a copy. While Nirvana's success -- or Ross Macdonald's -- cannot be quite so easily explained, there is more than a little truth in this theory. Love may certainly have been on to something.)
It's fitting, I think, that the Archer books span the period from World War II through the Vietnam War, a time when the questioning of parents, and by implication, society as a whole, became a dominating force in North American culture. For some, it suddenly seemed that the entire world was full of convenient lies. The term "generation gap" was the rallying cry from both sides, used endlessly to explain why the other side "just didn't get it." "Hail, hail, rock 'n' roll!" sang Chuck Berry, "Deliver us from the days of old!" As the fault lines widened between the new and the old, black and white, hawks and doves, left and right, us and them, the battle lines were drawn.
And onto this social and political battlefield drove Lew Archer, maybe with an overnight bag on the seat beside him, come to track down that missing daughter, that delinquent son, that absent father. Nobody would ever accuse Macdonald or Archer of being hip cats; yet few authors captured the era's divisions as well as Macdonald did. Like Sigmund Freud with a trench coat and a shoulder holster, his man Archer specialized in the healing and revealing of hidden truths. Here was someone, it seemed, who did "get it."
Not that the Archer books spoke only to baby boomers, or just to young people, or even to one specific epoch of history. I, myself, came to the books much later -- in the 1980s, in fact. Macdonald had stopped writing before I ever read one of his books. But though Macdonald's novels were forged in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, his appeal seems to have transcended that period. Certainly his stories spoke to me in ways that other detective fiction never has. I may have wanted to be as tough as Sam Spade, or as clever with a wisecrack as Philip Marlowe, but I wanted to know Archer. An older and presumably wiser person, someone capable of listening, and possibly even understanding and maybe, just maybe, pointing the way, was someone a lot of people could use in their lives at one time or another.
When Archer first appeared, he was basically an alternate take on Chandler's Marlowe: Less concerned with questions of honor, perhaps, and certainly a tad more prone to introspection, he was also more than a little in love with the sound of his own voice, judging from some of the rather forced and awkward over-writing of the early Archer novels. The cop-turned-gumshoe was still in love with his ex-wife Sue, as well -- an early clue to what would become another recurring theme of the series: the longing for lost, or denied, love. From the beginning, Archer showed signs of being haunted by his past, even if it was just a failed marriage of a few years back. And from the beginning, too, Macdonald showed considerable promise and ambition.
Sam Spade, The Continental Op, and even Phil Marlowe were known to play tough with a suspect or witness, and in the early books, starting with The Moving Target, Archer employed more or less the same modus operandi. But as Macdonald's series progressed, it soon became clear what Archer's favorite course of action was: talking. The hard-boiled, hands-on tough guy approach eventually gave way to talk. And the nature of his cases began to change, from rather routine P.I. fare to the increasingly complicated unearthing of family pasts, as Macdonald and Archer began to find their own voices.
The watershed novel was, of course, The Galton Case. The previous book, The Doomsters (1958), had already marked "a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition," according to Macdonald, but "seismic disturbances occurred" during its writing that were to inform Macdonald's fiction for the rest of his career. A private man, protective of his family, he spoke of his "half-suppressed Canadian years" rising "like a corpse from the bottom of the sea to confront" him. But in reality the disturbances were also a lot closer than that. In 1956, Linda Millar, already a troubled teenager, was charged with the killing of a Santa Barbara boy in a hit-and-run car accident. Her family was in crisis. They moved to the San Francisco area for a year, Macdonald underwent psychological therapy, trying to come to terms with his family tragedies, both past and present. And in The Galton Case, with its complicated, almost circular plot about missing prodigal sons, absent fathers, inheritance denied, and dirty little secrets leading back to Canada, he tried get a grip on those same questions, using his literary detective, Lew Archer, as a "a kind of welder's mask... to handle dangerously hot material."
After The Galton Case, Archer still carried a piece, and he could still take care of himself in a brawl, if he had to. And he asked questions, listened closely to the answers, and tried to put the pieces together. No car chases, no explosions, no psychotic sidekick to blow away the bad guys. It became more and more apparent that Archer's ultimate goal wasn't so much to solve the crime and see justice done, as it was to understand the crime, and maybe somehow save its victims. As Archer remarked in The Goodbye Look (1969), "I have a secret passion for mercy. But justice is what keeps happening to people."
The dozen-or-so books that followed Galton all had stories revolving around family secrets and long-buried crimes, passed on from generation to generation, like some genetic condition carried in the blood.
And in every one, love -- in some permutation -- lay at the root of all the trouble: misguided love, twisted love, too much love, lies in the name of love, and always, ultimately, too little love of the kind that is needed. Yet Archer, himself, seemed to experience very little love over his career; instead, he appeared to live vicariously through his clients. It was only in what turned out to be Macdonald's last novel, The Blue Hammer (1976), that Archer, in the arms of a female reporter he meets during his search for a long-missing artist, seemed to find the possibility of a lasting love. It was a fitting coda to a series that in many ways was always about the search for love.
As I said before, it's personal. We all struggle with our pasts, our own dark secrets, the not-quite-hidden tragedies and deceptions that shape us. We all have our own case to crack. But Macdonald shared his with us, using the Archer stories.
I'm not the only one who's been touched by Macdonald's work. He may be gone, and Archer with him, but the books remain in print and still sound current, even almost 16 years after his death. And Nolan's new biography of Macdonald suggests a continuation, even a revival, of interest in the author among a whole new generation of readers.
Archer's legacy also echoes through the pages of his spiritual descendants -- in the lost and damaged children whom Robert B. Parker's Spenser and Robert Crais' Elvis Cole struggle to save; in the twirling familial psychodramas of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series (set in Archer's beloved "Santa Teresa," his code name for Santa Barbara); and in the simple decency and patience of both Joseph Hansen's gay sleuth, Dave Brandstetter, and Michael Collins' one-armed Dan Fortune. You see Macdonald's inspiration in the politicized compassion of Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski; in the brooding, lonely chivalry of Stephen Greenleaf's John Marshall Tanner; and in the softhearted, yet resigned professionalism of Bill Pronzini's Nameless. Much of the very best of modern detective fiction has, in fact, been influenced by Macdonald.
And his influence is there, too, beyond the literature of detective fiction, in the liner notes of the CD reissue of Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Warren Zevon's album of songs about shattered lives, restless kids, dirty family secrets, lost identity, and pain -- and maybe, just maybe, the possibility of love. It's there, at the bottom of the album credits, past the recording info and the producers' credits.
If you look closely, you can see it.
il miglior fabbro.*
KEVIN SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television, and other media. He lives in Montreal, and is still trying to solve the mystery of that city. One day, he'll get it right.
* Translated as "the greatest craftsman."