Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Name Is ArcherThe Name Is Archer by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"All I could see was his unchanging smile, framed in brilliant light. I felt a keen desire to do some orthodontic work on it. But the gun was an inhibiting factor."

The Name is Archer is an early collection of Ross Macdonald's (the pen name of Kenneth Millar) short stories. Tom Nolan in his great Ross Macdonald: A Biography explains the origins of this collection: in the summer of 1954 Bantam Books "made a deal for a collection of Lew Archer short stories. The paperback would combine the five Archer novelettes done for Manhunt and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" with two non-Archer stories. Particularly the first of these two magazines specialized in hard-boiled fiction - sometimes of the "pulp" variety - and the early Macdonald's stories seem to fit the profile well. The collection garnered praise from critics: as Mr. Nolan writes, "Bill Pronzini, first President of the Private Eye Writers of America, in 1986 ranked Macdonald's anthology [along with Hammett's and Chandler's works] as the finest volumes of so-called hard-boiled crime stories."

The straightforward hard-boiled crime prose is not my thing - the authors are too constrained by conventions of the genre causing repetitiveness and abundance of clich├ęs - and I do not like this collection of Macdonald's stories. The emphasis is on fast action rather than on mood and character psychology that are so distinctive for the later works of Ross Macdonald. Alas, I do not much care for the prose in these early stories either. Mr. Millar has not yet found his voice, which will be so unique and powerful in his future works.

In the first story, Find the Woman, which is set in the mid-to-late 1940s, Archer has just been released from the army, and is in his second day on the private eye job. Lew's fans will undoubtedly find the story of his first job interesting. For me the last story, Wild Goose Chase, is the most engaging: Archer is hired to watch a murder trial and predict the verdict. It is a psychologically intense story with rather well drawn characters. The writing is also notable and somewhat similar to later works of the author. No such lapses as, for instance, the awkward sentence "I could smell the fear on Donny: there's an unexplained trace of canine in my chromosomes" in the story Gone Girl. The rhyming dialogue in the same story is awful as well; but I believe such dialogues were de rigueur at that time. Of course I like the mention of La Jolla and the Cove, where most of the plot of Suicide takes place, and which reminds me of the many years I spent around that place some 25 years ago.

Perhaps the weakest of all works by Ross Macdonald, but even then better than 90% of current bestsellers.

One and three quarter stars.

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