(Note: In writing this, the final installment of my increasingly long-winded series on classic hard-boiled private dicks, I would be remiss if I did not mention one Bob Koch. Besides being a Jack-of-All trades who is equally adept at harmonizing, the Glockenspiel, and writing obituaries, Bob's the guy who introduced me to Ross MacDonald. And several other fine pulp writers and filmmakers, for that matter. Also, he wrote a song with perhaps the finest title ever: "[Bob] Seger's Got a Knife".)
When I was asked what I would say about Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels and short stories, I replied thusly:
If we were to draw an analogy to punk rock (and why not?) it would break down like so.* Hammett is the Ramones or maybe the Sex Pistols, in that he was lean, mean, and to the point. His is the blueprint from which all others build. Chandler, on the other hand, is like the early Clash, say around "Complete Control." He picked up the gauntlet that had been dropped at his feet and proceeded to make it more complex, more vital, and, er, louder. This brings us to Ross MacDonald, who would be Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros or mid-to-late-period Replacements when they aren't messing about with reggae or saxophones, respectively: a little older, a little wiser, more reflective, but still brilliant. By the time MacDonald took it up, the genre was well-established. He writes within the confines of the genre while stretching and testing the boundaries, self-consciously perhaps but never in a winking or self-referential manner. In short? Class, all class.
Hammett gave us insight into what a detective actually does, and Chandler added a depth to the character of the detective. MacDonald, on the other hand, digs into the psyches of the criminals and the victims - who are often one and the same. He's much more interested in what makes the antagonist tick; Archer is often along for the ride, sometimes more a witness to the wreckage of human failings than an investigator. He's introspective, and ruminates over the costs of secrets and human weakness, but the focus is squarely on the guilty.
(The guilty parties here are pretty much everybody, in one way or another, even if it's only by virtue of having been twisted by something in their past that was out of their hands at the time. That said, it's no excuse - as far as Archer sees it, though he may sympathize - for killing to keep what happened to you a secret.)
Also, unlike Marlowe or the Op, Archer is usually found in a more middle- or upper-class milieu. And much like Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Archer's a little old to be getting involved in such shenanigans and gets knocked out a lot.
Based in Los Angeles, that noir standby, Archer haunts the entire "Southland" - the sprawl that stretches from (at the time) beach towns like Santa Monica and Venice, through Hollywood and the Central City, up to Pasadena, and over to the Inland Empire, Newport, and so on. Aside from the plotting, his novels are invaluable time capsules into that period of time when L.A. crossed over into the sixties. Archer himself is a shamus cast in the mold of Marlowe, but the birds he's chasing tend to be whacked out on bad acid or "reefers" instead of heroin and bootleg whiskey.
Typically, he's called in to do something along the lines of digging up dirt on a suspected golddigger who is allegedly after some family fortune, and then ends up exposing a decades-old crime that money and power had previously hushed up, although both tend to be ineffective in the long run. Archer's cases are like Greek or Shakespearian tragedies, where everyone is doomed for something that happened a while back and set into motion a chain of events steeped in guilt, innocence, and retribution like some Goldberg device driven by the engines of Fate and Freud.
As often as not, his cases span generations and are driven by the kinds of secrets that the wealthy and indolent hoard along with their jewels and stock portfolios. In MacDonald's hands Southern California looks a little like the decline of Rome, but everybody's tan and the femme fatales have studied French, while the heavies and mugs tend to be chauffers, or else kept men who failed to develop as businessmen or artists.
Of the many Archer novels out there, my favorite has to be either Find a Victim or The Drowning Pool. While the former finds Archer wrapped up in a suspicious fire in the hills overlooking L.A. and the latter involves a whole host of familial and psychological/sexual tangles, both are vintage MacDonald. In them, Archer is as much historian as snoop and the whodunit only becomes clear when he figures out the whodidit.
It's more Chinatown than The Maltese Falcon. For fans of Veronica Mars, this is more like the second season's mystery than the first season's Chandler-esque puzzle. If you're new to the genre, you might want to start out with Hammett or Chandler, but once you've gotten the steps down, MacDonald waltzes with the best of them.
* Other analogies that were considered but ultimately tossed out:
Hammett:Chandler:MacDonald::Early Modernism:High Moderns:Postmodernism
Hammett:Chandler:MacDonald::Flying Burrito Brothers:Uncle Tupelo:Son Volt/Wilco
Hammett:Chandler:MacDonald::the first Star Wars movie:Firefly:Battlestar Galactica