Saturday, April 11, 2020

Lew Archer #01 - The Moving Target (aka Harper)

Author Kenneth Millar's most utilized pseudonym was Ross MacDonald, a name created to avoid confusion with his wife Margaret's literary career. As MacDonald, the author's most coveted and celebrated work is the Lew Archer series of private-detective novels. Like an uncanny second coming of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, MacDonald sculpted Archer as a studious, more sensitive California sleuth. While equally tough with guns and fists, Archer's procedural style is in stark contrast to the era's most iconic private-eye, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.

Archer debuted in a 1946 short story titled Find the Woman. MacDonald's first full-length Archer novel was 1949's The Moving Target.  The book was adapted to film in 1966 under the title Harper with Paul Newman in the starring role as Lew Harper instead of Archer. Newman portrayed the character again in the series’ second adaptation, The Drowning Pool, in 1970. My only experience with Millar's writing was his enjoyable 1953 stand-alone novel Meet Me at the Morgue, also known as Experience with Evil. Being unfamiliar with the Archer series, I'm beginning with the first installment, The Moving Target.

The book begins with Archer's arrival in a posh suburb in the fictional California city of Santa Teresa (probably based on the real Santa Barbara). Archer has been hired by a woman named Mrs. Sampson to locate her missing husband Ralph. The family is old money with Ralph making a fortune in oil and real estate and Mrs. Sampson seemingly indifferent to where, when and how her husband spends his free time. After the initial meeting, Archer is introduced to Ralph's gorgeous 20-year old daughter Miranda and his personal pilot, Taggert. Archer also reunites with an old friend named Graves, a former District Attorney who now specializes in private practice.

Archer's procedural investigation leads to Las Vegas through a criminal named Troy. Both Ralph and Troy had some sort of business relationship and Archer feels that Troy could be a suspect in Ralph's disappearance. But, like most genre works, the idea of magically solving the mystery is way more complex. Archer learns the rabbit doesn't come easy when a ransom note appears demanding $100,000 for Ralph's safe delivery. Entwined in the ransom attempt is a washed up jazz singer named Betty and a declining actress named Fay. Archer teams with Graves to successfully deliver the ransom money but ends up with a corpse to elevate the mystery to murder.

Obviously, there is a lot to unpack in Millar's debut Archer novel. While my synopsis might be muddied, it's for your own good. This is a complex but enthralling narrative that showcases Millar's private-eye as a determined, thinking man's hero who isn't easily swayed into fisticuffs. The mystery is a complex one with a number of possible leads and directions that all circulate around Ralph Sampson's disappearance. Archer is centralized but the cast of characters help bulk up Millar's prose - two hot-blooded female performers, a strongman pilot, the complacent attorney and Ralph's eccentric family. Without the dynamic supporting cast, The Moving Target would be a wholly different novel, albeit still a very good one.

While The Moving Target is technically a 1940s private-eye novel, it should appeal to fans of 1950s crime-noir and hardboiled crime. It feels a bit more modern than I, the Jury, the runaway bestseller that placed detective fiction at new heights of popularity in 1947. In addition, Millar's use of California's rolling seaside hills provides so much more literary space than the rather mundane urban settings of New York City. Archer thrives as a suburban detective and the author's descriptive usage of the surroundings played key parts in the book's climactic scenes.

The Moving Target is a fantastic American novel and deserves the heaps of praise it has received over many decades. The book is still in print and widely available. Buy a copy of the book HERE and see for yourself what genre fans have been talking about this whole time. Lew Archer is simply awesome.

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