Friday, April 11, 2008

Lew Archer, family counselor

With every Ross Macdonald novel I read, I become more of a fan. By chance or by choice, Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer, always seems to catch the sort of case that forces him to be as much family therapist as detective, delving into secret grievances and simmering hurts, appealed to and abused in equal measure, and batted back and forth between feuding relatives like the prototypical child of divorce. He is less cynical than many noir detectives, yet at the same time less vulnerable--usually, the only pain he suffers is the pain of the ineffectual observer, one who has tried and failed to get people to see the damage they're doing to their purported loved ones. Even as he's knocking on the door of a new client's house, Archer gives off an air of being tired of being used and being lied to, yet unwilling to stop trying to hold back--however temporarily--the inevitable flood of resentment and sadistic anger.

Macdonald's writing is anything but flashy, but he takes full advantage of Archer's bone-deep weariness, letting us watch as Archer's mind moves perpetually on dual tracks: on the one hand listening to his interlocutors while on the other perpetually reading their manner and their surroundings in an effort to gauge their veracity. Given the sort of cases that Archer takes on, it's helpful that Macdonald's good with dialogue, too--especially in the context of undeclared arguments.

In just the first chapters of The Instant Enemy (1968), which Black Lizard has just republished, there's plenty of good stuff to share:
"This is Mr. Lew Archer," Sebastian was saying. "The private detective I called." He spoke as if he was presenting me to her as a kind of peace offering.

. . . .

"Mr. Stephen Hackett is my boss. That is, he controls the holding company that controls the savings and loan company that I work for. He owns quite a few other things, too."

"Including you," his wife said. "But not my daughter."

"That's unfair, Bernice. I never said--"

"It's what you do that counts."

. . . .

She looked at the window as if it was still dark, now and forever. I followed her glance. Two people were striding along the fairway, a man and a woman, both white-haired, as if they'd grown old in the quest for their small white ball.

. . . .

"A thousand? A thousand cash, no taxes to pay."

"Forget it," [I said.]

"A thousand cash and me. I look better without my clothes on." She nudge my arm with her breast. All it did was make my kidneys hurt.
And then there's this more extended sequence, which begins when Archer tries to talk a young thug into returning his client's daughter:
"She's never going back to that dungeon."

"It's better than shacking up with a psycho."

"I'm not a psycho!"

To prove it he swung his right fist at my head. I leaned back and let it go by. But his left followed very quickly, catching me on the side of the neck. I staggered backward into the garden, balancing the wobbly sky on my chin.
175 pages to go. I know what I'm doing with the rest of my afternoon.

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