Lew Archer

Lew Archer
First appearance The Moving Target
Last appearance The Blue Hammer
Created by Ross Macdonald
Gender Male
Occupation Private detective
Nationality American

Lew Archer is a fictional character created by Ross Macdonald. Archer is a private detective working in Southern California. 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"[1] while Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty was a fan of the series and carried on a lengthy correspondence with Macdonald.[2]

Stephen White is the current rights holder of Lew Archer and the book series.[3]


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."[4]

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. 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. 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. 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.[4] 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,[5] 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 Freud and the psychology of Sophocles 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 for 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 [6]), while "Lew Wallace" was the author of the novel "Ben Hur." [7]



The Galton Case

First print cover of The Galton Case
Author Ross Macdonald
Country US
Language English
Series Lew Archer
Release number
Genre noir
Set in 1950s-60s
Published 1959
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Pages 186
Preceded by The Doomsters
Followed by The Wycherly Woman

The Galton Case is the eighth novel in the Lew Archer detective series written by Ross Macdonald and published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1959.[3]

The lead character is hired find the Galton fortune's lost heir. Archer finds a series of murders, web of secrets and deception.[3] From the back of the 1983 Bantam edition:

Rich boy Anthony Galton had dropped out of sight more than twenty years ago. To Lew Archer that meant the man was either dead or didn't want to be found. But Tony's nice old mother had a dream that her son would still come home before she died. So Archer took on the case hoping that Tony and Mom could live happily ever after... until he discovered that once upon a time there was a clever swindle, a scared blonde, and a very nasty murder.[8]

Short stories

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[3] as "Lew Harper" (rumor supposes the name was changed from the original because Newman felt characters with "H" names were "lucky"):

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.[3]

TV Series

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

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)



  1. http://www.januarymagazine.com/crfiction/rossintro.html
  2. 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
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 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.
  4. 1 2 Macdonald, Ross (1973). On Crime Fiction. Santa Barbara : Capra Press, Series title: Yes! Capra chapbook series ; no. 11
  5. Tom Nolan, Ross Macdonald, A Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999 ISBN 0-684-81217-7
  6. Kreyling, Michael (2005). The Novels of Ross Macdonald. University of South Carolina Press. p. 18. ISBN 1-57003-577-6.
  7. Tom Nolan, editor, Ross Macdonald: The Archer Files, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, Introduction: "Archer in Memory" p. xiii.
  8. From the back of the 1983 Bantam edition
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