“I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.” – Lew Archer, in Ross MacDonald’s “The Moving Target.”
It has been said that Kenneth Millar, a. k. a. Ross MacDonald, wrote the same novel over and over again, but it was such a good novel that no one could hold that against him. It’s true that Lew Archer, the tough-but-fair detective that first made it big with 1949’s “The Moving Target” and 1950’s “The Drowning Pool” would “go through the motions” in many subsequent novels. A client calls him in to take care of a seemingly simple situation, (a disappearance in the family, a routine blackmailing) and Archer goes on to get tangled in (and find a way out of) a thick, sticky web of deceitful criminality.
The plots ARE highly complicated and surprising, but they are always highly complicated and surprising according to the same scheme. Few mystery series writers have escaped this accusation- but few have been praised by the literary establishment like MacDonald, (Eudora Welty was a friend, vocal fan, and maybe hook-up, according to the wagging tongues.)
It’s not the satisfying-but-repetitive plot mechanics that make MacDonald third in the original noir trinity, (after Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.) And it’s not even the “psychology,” although people will point at the increasingly Freudian ruminations of the series as the reason why the Lew Archer series “transcends genre” – apologies for an embarrassingly lazy phrase that serves only to hint at a critic’s ignorance of a ‘genre.’ If there is a transcendence of genre in MacDonald’s work, it’s the way in which he goes beyond fiction into poetry. If Robert Frost had been tasked by a tyrannical muse with the plotting of whodunits, they might have sounded like “The Moving Target” or “The Drowning Pool.” Nowhere is this poetry better than when depicting the external and internal landscapes of Archer’s “Santa Teresa,” which are shown to us in concise, lucid lines that get at the truth behind things. (MacDonald lived in Santa Barbara all his life, and “Santa Teresa” is the alter locus; curiously, his wife, Margaret Millar, a renowned writer on her own, also used Santa Barbara as locale- except she called it “Santa Felicia.” Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s alphabet-loving P. I., would eventually move to “Santa Teresa” herself.)
Paul Newman played Lew Archer in two movies based on “The Moving Target” and “The Drowning Pool.” (one good, one mediocre) Or rather, Newman played “Lew Harper,” because I guess there is some rule that makes it so that any Hollywood adaptations of literary material must include a variety of pointless, preferably detrimental changes. Like, say, deciding that “Harper” was a married man. Or that he must work in Louisiana instead of California. Or that he should be 5’2 and 140 lbs. instead of 6’5 and 250 lbs. Wait, now I’m thinking about Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Still, same concept.