Book Review: The Name is Archer by Ross Macdonald

The Name is Archer
by Ross Macdonald
Copyright 1955 (2nd revised edition 1987)
Bantam Books
228 pages (of very-small type)

Rating: 8/10

Summary: Ross Macdonald was one of the masters of suspense fiction. The Name is Archer is a collection of short stories featuring Macdonald’s hard-as-nails private eye, Lew Archer. It is a great introduction to Macdonald’s work.

Review: Back in 1996, I discovered vintage detective fiction by reading Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. On a trip to Tampa, Florida, that summer, I happened by a bookstore, where I found and bought a copy of Ross Macdonald’s The Chill. Since, then I’ve been a religious reader of Macdonald.

By the early-2000s, I’d read almost all of Macdonald’s work and I drifted away from it for a while. (But I always held on to my Archer novels). Recently, I wanted to reread some of his work and I decided to start with The Name is Archer, because short stories require less commitment than does a novel. Happily, Macdonald’s work is still terrific on a second reading.

Macdonald is a pen name for Kenneth Millar (1915-1983). Millar spent a large part of his childhood in Canada, then earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan. Later, he used his academic background to bring new ideas into the mystery genre; specifically, he based many of his plots of the ancient myths and he used insights from psychology. The application of complex ideas to the low-rent mystery genre helped build Macdonald’s reputation with critics and he is often included in lists of the greatest mystery writers.

After World War II, Millar and his wife (novelist Margaret Millar) settled in Santa Barbara, California. California is the setting for almost all of Macdonald’s novels. Perhaps the one persistent criticism of Macdonald’s work is that most of his novels use the same basic plot – years ago, someone did something terrible. Today, the past comes back to haunt that person – and that person’s children. Another of his obsessions is identity; often, characters are mistaken for each other, or one character creates multiple identities.

The Name is Archer is a terrific, easy introduction to Macdonald. (Potential readers should be aware that there are at least two versions of this book. The original contains seven stories, but the revised edition (1987) contains nine).

Here is a short overview of the nine stories in The Name is Archer:
–          Find the Woman (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1946) – 7/10. This is an early story and – while it is pretty good – I don’t think that Macdonald had quite hit his stride. A Hollywood starlet goes missing just as her husband returns from World War II. Coincidence? Of course not. One aspect of this story that doesn’t work for me is that the death of one character is unbelievable.

–          Gone Girl (original title “Imaginary Blonde,” Manhunt, February 1953 – 8/10. In this story, Archer checks into a roadside motel and stumbles into a murder. Macdonald does a great job describing his settings – the motel, a decrepit beach shack, and Palm Springs. The ending isn’t quite up to Macdonald’s high standards.

–          The Bearded Lady (from American Magazine, October 1948) – 9/10. This is one of the best stories in the collection. At 45 pages, it is more of a novella than a short story and Macdonald uses the extra pages to slow the pace and add character development. In the story, Archer decides to take a vacation and drives north along the California coast. He stops in to see an old Army buddy who is an artist. Naturally, he winds up in the middle of a murder that involves a stolen painting, seedy bohemians, a broke admiral, and all manner of bad behavior. The Bearded Lady is a great example of Macdonald’s work; characters lost to despair, vivid settings, and plot twists that are difficult to anticipate.

–          The Suicide (original title ‘The Beat-Up Sister’ Manhunt, October 1953) – 7/10. Archer meets a UC-Berkeley coed on a train bound for Los Angeles. Once in LA, they discover that her older sister is missing. As the story develops, we learn that there was a hidden side to the older sister. The setup in this one is terrific, but it’s not Macdonald’s best. The story includes an unbelievable coincidence, when Archer is looking at the beach and a body just happens to wash ashore. Also, the story is not as creative as some of Macdonald’s efforts.

–          Guilt-Edged Blonde (from Manhunt, January 1954) – 7/10. This is the shortest story in the collection. Archer is hired to protect a gangster and all sorts of mayhem ensues. This is a good example of Macdonald’s obsession with twisted family relationships.

–          The Sinister Habit (original title ‘The Guilty Ones’ Manhunt, May 1953) – 9/10. An Illinois woman escapes from her humdrum life by marrying a Los Angeles man. Her brother insists that the new husband is a gold digger and hires Archer to track her down.
The story includes Macdonald’s trademarks: vivid settings and desperate characters. This passage contains descriptions of both:

“In full daylight, the stucco house in Santa Monica had an abandoned look. The blinds were drawn on all the windows, upstairs and down. The dying lawn, the unkempt flowerbeds strangling in crab grass, seemed to reflect the lives of people bound by their unhappiness. I noticed, though, that the lawn had recently been hosed, and a few drying puddles lay on the uneven concrete of the driveway. …
I pressed the bellpush beside the front door and waited. Shuffling footsteps dragged through the house. The gray-haired man in the Hawaiian shirt opened the door and peered out into the sun. He had had a bad night. His eyes were blurred by alcohol and grief, his mouth was raw and defenseless. The slack flesh in his face hung like melting plasticine on the bones. So did his body. He was a soft-boiled egg without the shell” (p. 155).

This is a terrific story, with a great “twist” ending that I did not anticipate.

–          Wild Goose Chase (from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, July 1954) – 7/10. This is a decent story, but it’s based on a shaky premise. A woman – whose identity is unknown to Archer – hires him to investigate a murder. She could provide an alibi for a murder defendant, but prefers not to because she doesn’t want people to know that she was with him on the night of the murder.

–          Midnight Blue (from Ed McBain’s Mystery Magazine, October 1960) – 8/10. A promiscuous high school girl is murdered and everyone in town blames a hobo who is camped near the murder scene. Archer suspects that they are wrong. From the plot, it was easy to guess that this was going to be one of Macdonald’s “twisted family tales” – and he did not disappoint me.

–          Sleeping Dog (from Argosy, April 1965) – 8/10. A woman’s dog goes missing and it leads to something much more sinister. This is a great example of the basic Macdonald plot – the past is never dead. It’s waiting until you let your guard down. Then it will destroy you.

Summary: Macdonald doesn’t seem to enjoy quite the same notoriety as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. In my humble opinion, he’s the best of the three.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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5 Responses to Book Review: The Name is Archer by Ross Macdonald

  1. tonybulmer says:

    Robert Crais got me into Ross MacDonald. He is a big fan. I look forward to reading more. Do not forget to check out http://crimezine@wordpress.com/
    There has been an interesting debate raging recently regarding Raymond Chandler with input from the publisher of the legendary Black Mask magazine. I welcome your thoughts!

    • Tony,

      Thanks for your comment. I will have to check out the crimezine website. I’m always on the lookout for good websites for mystery fanatics – er, fans. Chandler’s novels definitely aren’t politically correct and that has hurt his reputation with the “literati.”

      Best Regards,
      MMM

  2. Chic says:

    I too love Ross Macdonald and have read all his mysteries from the earliest to the last. You probably know this, Macdonald’s Santa Teresa is a pseudonym for Santa Barbara. Sue Grafton has carried on the use of Santa Teresa in her ‘alphabet series’ mysteries featuring a female private investigator, Kinsey Millhone.

    • Chic,

      Thanks for your comment.

      In the future, I will have to read more Grafton. Any writer who evokes a strong sense of place is worth reading. I agree with the literary critics who say that the setting is a “character” in every story.

      Best Regards,
      MMM

  3. Tom says:

    Great post. Ross MacDonald is so much better than Chandler and (especially) Hammett that it’s actually shocking. Or at least it was to me, given their reputations. Have you ever tried to read The Thin Man? Ugh. And the short stories? Even worse. At least Chandler is readable, mostly.

    It’s another topic, obviously, but Ross MacDonald is also so much better than John D. MacDonald that that’s shocking, too. And that’s again given their respective reputations . . . and books sold.

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