The Moving Target, by Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer #1) — a book review

If you’re lucky enough to own a first-edition copy of this novel, you will notice that the author’s name printed on the dust jacket is “John Macdonald.”

Kenneth Millar chose to write under a pseudonym because his wife, Margaret Millar, was already a well-known mystery novelist. The John Macdonald name was chosen after his father, John Macdonald Millar. However, the similarity to existing author John D. MacDonald (another of my faves) inspired the change to “Ross Macdonald.” So, now you know. And, knowing is half the battle.

Ross Macdonald penned eighteen full-length Lew Archer novels, with this one being the first, published in 1949. The Archer character is considered, by many, to be the spiritual successor to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Macdonald kept the hardboiled tradition alive but began to incorporate more literary themes and to delve more into the psychology of his characters. While remaining a tough guy, the loner private eye archetype, Archer is just a bit more sensitive and empathetic than Marlowe. In many ways, Archer presaged future private eyes who would continue to bend and reshape the classic mold, if not completely break it, such as Travis McGee, Spenser, Kinsey Milhone, Amos Walker, and many more.

I remember reading a blurb for a paperback novel, too many years ago to count. I think it was one of Robert B. Parker’s early Spenser novels. The blurb said something to the effect that the work was a direct descendent of the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald tradition. It was only later that I realized the “Macdonald” portion of the hypenate was Ross Macdonald.

I’ve read several of the Lew Archer novels over the years. I can’t remember which ones, but it doesn’t matter. I’m reading them all again anyway. I was maybe thirty or thirty-five pages into The Moving Target before I realized I had read this one before. The set-up became increasingly familiar, like something remembered from a dream. I couldn’t remember how the book ended, though, so that was all right.

Texas millionaire Ralph Samson disappears and his wife hires Lew Archer to find him. Samson tends to go on drinking binges and do foolish things like give away entire mountains to a wacky sun-worshipping religious cult leader. The novel is populated with a whole pack of characters, most of them suspects as Archer begins to believe that Samson was kidnapped. There’s the wheelchair-bound wife, of course. The sex-kitten daughter. The dashing young pilot. The old friend of Archer’s who’s now a lawyer. The cult guru. The obligatory, civilized-speaking, all-around bad guy. The faded Hollywood actress/astrologist. The drug-addicted piano player. Assorted bruisers and henchmen.

Archer pursues the case doggedly, gets knocked on his head so many times the NFL is concerned, and acts more like Philip Marlowe in this novel than I know he will in later ones. The ending is a satisfying one, but you may find it a bit predictable, especially if you have read it once before the way I had. I hesitate to call anything in the novel cliché, although it seems that way now. Macdonald was one of the writers of hardboiled detective fiction who created the clichés. The tropes that seem tired in this one may have been appearing for the first time, in some cases.

I enjoyed re-reading this one. I found it relaxing, the way I do when I turn on an old Humphrey Bogart movie on TCM and leave it on for background noise. Ross Macdonald himself made the observation that Lew Archer was not the emotional center of the novels, and, to Macdonald at least, Archer was not the main object of interest. Archer is the narrator of the novels, but remains mostly a cipher even after eighteen novels and a few collections of shorter stories. The books are about the case and the people Archer encounters during the investigation.

Much of the action in this book takes place in fictional Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Santa Barbara, California, where Macdonald lived for a few decades. It is no coincidence that Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone also lives in Santa Teresa in her stories. Ms. Grafton also lived in Santa Barbara and named Kinsey’s home as an homage to Ross Macdonald.

This seventy-one-year-old novel won’t amaze or surprise you too much. You’ve seen this type of story play out hundreds of times, not just in books but on television and in the movies as well. Several of Macdonald’s books were adapted for screens of all sizes, including a television series in the mid-1970s, starring Brian Keith as Lew Archer (the show lasted for six episodes).

However, this novel may help rekindle your love for this type of literature, if you ever loved it. Otherwise, it might inspire you to read other books that may have been published when your grandparents were still young. If nothing else, you may learn that there is nothing new under the sun, if I may be permitted to wax a little ecclesiastical here, and that good stories have always been told.

Firewater’s Only-Cream-and-Bastards-Rise Report Card: B

A solid, ripping yarn that I recommend. It’s a good novel that helps to set the stage for the better novels that came later. If you enjoy modern private eye fiction, you shouldn’t hesitate to study its roots.

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