Friday, July 12, 2013

The Goodbye Look

That was the look Lew Archer gave you.  He was the creation of the late Ross Macdonald (Ken Millar) and in the words of his creator, if he turned sideways, he would almost disappear.  He was the prober, the one who asked the questions but often avoided answering them if they were directed back at him.  He looked for the deeper reasons for what made people go bad, a Jungian with a PI license.  Early on though, this World War II vet and ex-Long Beach, California uniformed cop was in the tough guy mold, fast with the wisecracks and his fists – and gun if need be.  This from the Archer short story, “Gone Girl”:

“I stepped behind the cot and pulled the girl down to the floor with me. Gino came through the door, his two-colored sports shoe stepping on Donny's labored breathing. I shot the gun out of his hand. He floundered back against the wall, clutching his wrist.

“I sighted carefully for my second shot, until the black bar of his eyebrows was steady in the sights of the .38. The hole it made was invisible. Gino fell loosely forward, prone on the floor beside the man he had killed.”

Macdonald like so many of us was steeped in the influences of Chandler and Hammett.  But as critics and Macdonald himself have noted, it was with the seventh novel The Doomsters, that he makes the break from the Big Two in that Archer becomes more involved in the psychological damage the characters in a particular family do to one another in the story – a theme he would return to over and over in subsequent books, along with secrets buried deep from the past.

"My mind had been haunted for years by an imaginary boy whom I recognized as the darker side of my own remembered childhood." Macdonald said later, reflecting on the origins of the next book in the series, the Galton Case.

I came to Macdonald late in his career.  In my teens in high school, when not consumed with learning my football playbook or fantasizing about a cute cheerleader, I started reading mysteries and discovered The Underground Man.  The book is about a body unearthed after a wildfire in the hills of his made-up Santa Teresa (his stand-in for Santa Barbara and where today’s Kinsey Millhone, A is for Alibi, etc. by Sue Grafton, hangs her PI shingle), inspired by an actual fire in the Southland.

Acclaimed author Eudora Welty reviewed The Underground Man in the New York Times.  “As a detective and as a man [Lew Archer] takes the human situation with full seriousness. He cares. And good and evil both are real to him. ... He is at heart a champion, but a self-questioning, often a self-deriding champion. He is of today, one of ours. The Underground Man is written so close to the nerve of today as to expose most of the apprehensions we live with.

In our day it is for such a novel as
The Underground Man that the detective form exists. ... What gives me special satisfaction about this novel is that no one but a good writer -- this good writer -- could have possibly brought it off. The Underground Man is Mr. Macdonald’s best book yet, I think. It is not only exhilaratingly well done; it is also very moving.”

There were two more Lew Archer novels after that, Sleeping Beauty and the Blue Hammer, that I read and was already working backwards, into his past, to the other novels such as The Goodbye Look in the Archer series. Macdonald died too young in 1983 at 67 from complication due to Alzheimer’s. 

On screen, Paul Newman played the character twice, in Harper, based on the Moving Target and the Drowning Pool.  Reportedly Newman was superstitious and having had success playing characters beginning with an ‘H,” Hud and Hombre, he had the name changed for the movie.  Both were pretty good efforts.  A TV movie with Peter Graves based on The Underground Man was made and it was good too.  There was a short lived TV series with the always reliable Brian Keith, but it didn’t quite hit the right tone.  There was talk recently of a big screen reboot starting with the Galton Case adaptation via producer Joel Silver, but so far, nothing has materialized.

It’s as if the project turned sideways, and disappeared.

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