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 didn't get to his books until high school in the early 70s -- my beginning stage, and Macdonald's final one. Macdonald said that it was in The Galton Case, the Archer novel released in 1959, that he found his voice, his refashioning of the Hammett and Chandler he'd been riffing off of since "Gone Girl." On the surface of things, Galton is about a woman who wants to find the son she fell out with years before. By the end of the affair, Archer has solved both old and recent murders, and shattered the psychic mirrors that the various participants had hidden behind. Macdonald said The Galton Case was also where he excavated the pain and disappointments in his own life.
"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 years later, reflecting on the origins of that book.
Like I said, I encountered Macdonald in his later books first: The Underground Man, Sleeping Beauty, and finally, The Blue Hammer. By that third one, I knew this cat had the goods. I wasn't sure why, but there was something different in what he was putting on paper that others in the mystery field weren't doing. There wasn't much action in his novels; Archer didn't slap anybody around, talk tough -- hell, he seemed tired and worn down, really. Still there was something about Archer's doggedness, his ability to exist as a full-blown character without revealing much of himself, which made me want to know more about him. So, like Archer would have done, I went backwards in the P.I.'s fictional life to find my answers.
Lewis A. Archer had been reared in Long Beach, California, went to grade school in Oakland, stole cars as a teenager in Los Angeles, surfed and served in World War II during "the green and bloody springtime in Okinawa." But this information only comes out in fits and dribbles over a period of time and a succession of books. He'd been married to and divorced from a woman named Sue, who disliked his work. He had an office in the 8400 block of Sunset Boulevard and a second-story apartment in West LA that he used only for changing clothes and sleeping in, if even that much.
Archer was Gilgamesh with a shoulder holster, a guy more likely to quote Schopenhauer than the ball score. Macdonald said of his approach in the Archer stories that the quality of redemption was not the private property of any one of his characters. He felt the detective-as-redeemer was overly romanticized sentimentality. Archer did all the asking; he very rarely talked about himself, and was always defensive if pressed. "When he stands sideways, he almost disappears," Macdonald said of his Freudian avatar more than once. Man, that was just too existentialist, just too cool without even laboring to be so. I wanted to get to that level as a writer, see if I could parcel off something of my own in the arena that the athletic and brainy Kenneth Millar fought in -- the four-cornered ring of literary matches where he took his blows and inexorably, book after book, rose from welterweight to heavyweight champ.
I regret never having had the opportunity to meet Millar/Macdonald. I do remember seeing a documentary about him, though. Even today, there's this distinct image of a wiry built, middle-aged man jumping off a diving board playing over and over in washed-out color in my mind. His body hit the water with a certain elegance of form. As he traveled the length of the pool, the water rippled out from him, just as his fictional histories rippled out from the catalytic presence of his sun-baked Diogenes.
Later in that documentary, the quiet man said he was experiencing a patch of writer's block, but he felt confident he'd work through it. The tragic thing was, he never did. The Blue Hammer (1976) was to be the final completed Archer. Macdonald was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and he was cared for until his death in 1983, at the age of 67, by his then nearly blind wife, the wonderful novelist Margaret Millar.
I cannot imagine the frustration that Macdonald must have felt in those last years. Somewhere inside of him, the intricacies of his stories would tickle at his synapses, whisper in his neurons, yet he could not form whole, complete thoughts. What a cruel and capricious fate, so like the dour resolutions of his books.
What remains with me is that Kenneth Millar dared to explore new territory in the genre, and damned if he didn't succeed. His legacy is more than his books, though that is significant enough. What he also did was inspire writers and readers to see the P.I. story as something much more than plot and dialogue -- he dared you to look for meaning. | April 1999
GARY PHILLIPS is a Los Angeles resident and the author of three Ivan Monk private eye novels: Violent Spring (1994), Perdition, U.S.A. (1996), and Bad Night Is Falling (1998). His stand-alone crime novel, The Jook, will be out in the fall.