Lew Archer

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Lew Archer
First appearanceThe Moving Target
Last appearanceThe Blue Hammer
Created byRoss Macdonald
OccupationPrivate detective
SpouseSue Archer (divorced)

Lew Archer is a fictional character created by American-Canadian writer Ross Macdonald. Archer is a private detective working in Southern California.[1] Between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, the character appeared in 18 novels and a handful of shorter works as well as several film and television adaptations. Macdonald's Archer novels have been praised for building on the foundations of hardboiled fiction by introducing more literary themes and psychological depth to the genre. Critic John Leonard declared that Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become "a major American novelist"[2] while author Eudora Welty was a fan of the series and carried on a lengthy correspondence with Macdonald.[3] The editors of Thrilling Detective wrote: "The greatest P.I. series ever written? Probably."[4]

Stephen White is the current rights holder of Lew Archer and the book series.[5]


Initially, Lew Archer was similar to (if not completely a derivative of) Philip Marlowe, the pioneering sleuth created by Raymond Chandler in the 1930s. However, Macdonald eventually broke from that mold, though some similarities remain. Archer's principal difference is that he is much more openly sensitive and empathetic than the tough Marlowe. He also serves a different function from Marlowe. Chandler's books were primarily studies of Marlowe's character and code of honor, while Macdonald used Archer as a lens to explore the relationships of the other characters in the novels. Macdonald wrote, "Certainly my narrator Archer is not the main object of my interest, nor the character with whose fate I am most concerned," and moreover that Archer "is not their [the novels'] emotional center."[6]

Another subtle difference was that Marlowe prowled the city of Los Angeles during the 1940s, while Lew Archer primarily worked the suburbs in the 1950s, moving outward with the populace. Like Marlowe, Archer observes growing dichotomies in American society with visual "snapshots". In The Zebra-Striped Hearse, Archer hunts a missing girl who may be dead, possibly murdered. His path repeatedly crosses a group of young surfers who own a hearse painted in gay zebra stripes. To the youngsters, death is remote and funny. To the world-weary detective, it's close and grim.

Lew Archer is largely a cipher, rarely described. His background is most thoroughly explored in The Moving Target: he got his training with the Long Beach California Police Department, but left (Archer himself says he was "fired") after witnessing too much corruption. Subsequent novels mentioned details of Archer's life only in passing. In Black Money (1966) Archer mentions that he's about 50 years old, thus born circa 1916. In The Doomsters a sheriff mocks his 6'2" and blue eyes. As old failures plague him, we learn he once "took the strap away from my old man", that he was a troubled kid and petty thief redeemed by an old cop, that he sometimes drank too much, that his ex-wife's name is Sue, and he thinks of her often. During World War II, he served in military intelligence in the United States Army, again mentioned in The Doomsters.

Archer is sometimes depressed, often world-weary. An almost Greek sense of tragedy pervades the novels as the sins of omission and crimes of sometimes-wealthy parents are frequently visited upon their children, young adults whom Archer tries desperately to save from disaster. This use of Greek drama was deliberate, e.g., Macdonald based The Galton Case (1959) on a loose interpretation of the Oedipus myth.[6] Key incidents in the novels are typically separated by fifteen years, a scant generation, as evidence from old crimes surfaces to haunt new characters. As suspense in a novel builds toward a climax, Archer often gets little or no sleep, racing the clock and prowling the suburban Southern California landscape day after night after day, trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together in order to prevent new violence. This 36- or 48-hour wakefulness mimes the classic Greek tragic play where everything takes place in one day; here it might be more than a day, but since the character doesn't get to sleep, it essentially honors the tragic convention and contributes to the sense of unalterable impending doom. Tom Nolan in his Ross Macdonald, A Biography,[7] wrote of the author, "Gradually he swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Sophocles and the psychology of Freud to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery." Philosophical references underlined the thoughtful tone of the novels, with The Chill (1959) having mentions of Parmenides, Heraclitus and Achilles and the tortoise, while Black Money (1966) briefly discusses Henri Bergson.

The only recurring characters of note are Arnie and Phyllis Walters, who appear in several of the novels and seem to enjoy a warm friendship with Archer. Arnie is a private detective in Reno, Nevada, about 470 miles north of Los Angeles. Archer sometimes calls upon Artie for assistance with cases that lead to Nevada. Archer's investigations sometimes lead from California to Nevada, due in part to Nevada then having some of the most liberal marriage and divorce laws in the nation, and also due to Nevada then being one of the only states with legalized casino gambling and the associated organized crime presence.

Archer's name pays a double homage: first to Dashiell Hammett ("Miles Archer" was the name of Sam Spade's murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon [8]), while Lew Wallace was the author of the novel Ben Hur (1880).[9]



  1. The Moving Target (1949)
  2. The Drowning Pool (1950)
  3. The Way Some People Die (1951)
  4. The Ivory Grin (1952; aka Marked for Murder)
  5. Find a Victim (1954)
  6. The Barbarous Coast (1956)
  7. The Doomsters (1958)
  8. The Galton Case (1959)[5]
  9. The Wycherly Woman (1961)
  10. The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
  11. The Chill (1964)
  12. The Far Side of the Dollar (1965)
  13. Black Money (1966)
  14. The Instant Enemy (1968)
  15. The Goodbye Look (1969)
  16. The Underground Man (1971)
  17. Sleeping Beauty (1973)
  18. The Blue Hammer (1976)

Short stories[edit]

  • "Find the Woman" (June 1946, EQMM)
  • "The Bearded Lady" (American Magazine, October 1948)
  • "The Imaginary Blonde" (February 1953, Manhunt; AKA Gone Girl)
  • "The Guilty Ones" (May 1953, Manhunt; AKA The Sinister Habit)
  • "The Beat-Up Sister" (October 1953, Manhunt; AKA The Suicide)
  • "Guilt-Edged Blonde" (January 1954, Manhunt)
  • "Wild Goose Chase" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 1954)
  • "Midnight Blue" (October 1960, Ed McBain's Mystery Magazine)
  • "The Sleeping Dog" (April 1965, Argosy)
in three collections: The Name is Archer, Lew Archer, Private Investigator, and Strangers in Town



The character has been adapted for visual media several times: Two feature films starring Paul Newman[5] as "Lew Harper":

Random House Films made a deal in October 2011 to create a movie franchise of Ross Macdonald's detective Lew Archer with Silver Pictures and Warner Bros. Rights holder Stephen White and Random House Studio president Peter Gethers would be executive producers on the movies. This movie series would start adapting with the eighth book in the series, The Galton Case. From Silver Pictures, Andrew Rona and Alex Heineman will be executive producers with Joel Silver producing.[5]

TV Series[edit]

Archer, a 1975 NBC TV series (NBC) starring Brian Keith based on the character. It was cancelled after six episodes:

  • "The Turkish Connection", aired 30 January 1975
  • "The Arsonist", aired 6 February 1975
  • "The Body Beautiful", aired 13 February 1975
  • "Shades of Blue", aired 20 February 1975
  • "The Vanished Man", aired 6 March 1975
  • "Blood Money", aired 13 March 1975

Le Loup de la côte Ouest (2002, Hugo Santiago from the short story "Guilt-Edged Blonde") starring James Faulkner as Lew Millar. (Alternate Title: The Wolf of the West Coast)


  • "Sleeping Beauty", aired 1 January 1996 on NPR starring Harris Yulin as Archer
  • "The Zebra Striped Hearse", produced by KCRW starring Harris Yulin as Archer


  1. ^ Rosemary., Herbert (2003-01-01). Whodunit? : a who's who in crime & mystery writing. Oxford University Press. p. 10. ISBN 0195157613. OCLC 252700230.
  2. ^ "Feature - Ross Macdonald Tribute". www.januarymagazine.com.
  3. ^ Louis Bayard (2015) Review: Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, Conjoined by a Torrent of Words, The New York Times JULY 13, 2015, accessed 14 April 2016
  4. ^ "Lew Archer". www.thrillingdetective.com.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Fleming Jr, Mike (October 31, 2011). "Warner Bros, Joel Silver Revive Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer Novel Series With 'The Galton Case'". Deadline. Penske Business Media, LLC. Retrieved February 8, 2016.
  6. ^ a b Macdonald, Ross (1973). On Crime Fiction. Santa Barbara : Capra Press, Series title: Yes! Capra chapbook series ; no. 11
  7. ^ Tom Nolan, Ross Macdonald, A Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999 ISBN 0-684-81217-7
  8. ^ Kreyling, Michael (2005). The Novels of Ross Macdonald. University of South Carolina Press. p. 18. ISBN 1-57003-577-6.
  9. ^ Tom Nolan, editor, Ross Macdonald: The Archer Files, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, Introduction: "Archer in Memory" p. xiii.

External links[edit]