Since I’ve got some down time, I could do one of two things: Work or read.
And I’m not working. Ha! I’m on semester break, so . . . um, yeah.
So, I visited a used bookstore – because I have absolutely nothing in my home to read (save for those two hundred books stacked on my shelves) – and found a book that I’d wanted read – Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator.
This is a reprint of a collection that’s been released a number of times, but as NBC once bragged about re-running their crappy television shows, “If you haven’t seen them, then they’re new to you.” And in most respects, this book is very new to me.
I’ve mentioned previously my affinity for Macdonald’s works, and in particular, the titular investigator, Lew Archer. I was first exposed to both, not through the printed word, but rather through a pair of audio books that I’d picked up from – of all places – Sam’s Club, back in the mid-90s. Actor Peter Reigert (who’s done a ton of character work, but is probably best remembered for his portrayal of “Otter” in Animal House) read the stories, and created a permanent image of Lew Archer in my mind. I was always stunned that Reigert never portrayed Archer in film; I think his would have been a far more faithful characterization than Paul Newman’s “Lew Harper,” in both Harper and The Drowning Pool. [History note: The character was renamed for Newman because it was believed that he had great success with films when his characters had a name that started with an ‘H’. Go figure.] I thought Newman a terrific actor, but I’d have loved to see Reigert in action. Oh well, it’s our loss.
This collection of short stories is interesting, because they’re not all minor cases for a world-weary private eye. Some are short stories for magazines, some are incomplete. At least one story is presented in both its original and subsequently reworked formats for comparison. Editor Tom Nolan even includes a biography of Archer, and puts his investigative history in order. That said, the stories reflect the times in which they were written – the late 1940s onward – and even in the shortest complete tale, the characterization is full, crisp, and interesting. There’s a film noir quality all around. The wise-cracking detective is cliché, but Archer is at least realistic with his quips. The cases don’t always involve the stereotypical femme fatale with a semi-veiled face, a killer body, and enough baggage to fill the Superdome, either. Sometimes they’re simple situations that become unexpectedly complicated and violent. And the villains, both those responsible for some misdeed, and those who are just on the periphery, are pretty well-defined. In fact, if I had a complaint to make at all is that some of these stories are so short that sometimes it’s pretty easy to figure out who did what.
My mother used to espouse what she called the Dennis Cole Theory. Cole was a big character actor in 1960s and 1970s television, and continued acting until about 2005. (He died in 2009.) At one point, he was even married to Jaclyn Smith (of Charlie’s Angels fame). I remember him from his various appearances on “action” shows of the 1970s – Police Woman, Matt Houston, Vega$ – and he almost always depicted either the villain, or the villain’s chief henchman; either way, he was the program’s bad guy. Mama Furious’ theory worked like this: When the program started, she’d pay close attention to the cast. If Dennis Cole’s name appeared, she’d declared that “He did it,” and that there was no need to watch further. Silly, I know, but there’s a nugget of truth in this. Certain people play certain types, and after a while, you can’t tell one character of theirs from another (yes, I’m looking at you, Tom Cruise).
Macdonald does not rely on the Dennis Cole Theory. While not necessarily episodic, it’s clear that his Archer learns from many of his mistakes. He’s flawed just enough, and just self-aware enough to make one want to read each and every one of his adventures. I’m not kidding when I say that I’m addicted to Lew Archer. I’ve read about half of the novels; I’m trying to track down more. Until that happens, however, I’ll have The Archer Files to read as many times as necessary to feed my Archer fix.