I can't remember reading anything quite like Tom Nolan's introduction to The Archer Files- the complete short stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator. In fact, Nolan's "Archer In Memory" must be the most complete, and possibly only, biography of a fictional private eye. And one taken entirely from the writing of some guy called Ross Macdonald, who seems to have devoted an inordinate amount of time writing about Archer. Reading this biography which runs to almost fifty pages, Macdonald's name doesn't appear until the final few pages, making one think it's Archer who is real character and Macdonald a fictional invention. But, then, that's because Nolan, in this biographical sketch, does what he can to give Archer his autonomy, a notion not all that different from what any writer might wish on his or her protagonist.
Nolan has certainly done his research. Which is what one would expect from the man who wrote Ross Macdonald's biography. Nevertheless, Nolan comes up with facts even the most ardent Macdonald reader would probably not have known. As someone who has read at least a dozen Macdonald novels, I would be hard pressed to say much about Lew Archer's past. Sure, I know that in his earlier years he had been a cop, had a drink problem, was married and divorce and had served in the armed forces. But that's about it. Perhaps that's because Macdonald conveys such information so seamlessly. Or maybe I'm always so locked into the stories that I'm nearly oblivious to such information. Which is ironical, since so many of those stories are similar, to the point that, for me, the titles lose their significance and the books tend to constitute, to use the title of Avery/Wong/Nelson's recent book, one case. However, Nolan knows his subject so well he's able to dig deep and bring all those Archer personal asides together. It's quite a feat, one that couldn't be repeated for many other hardboiled protagonists, including Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade. All of which makes Nolan's The Archer Files a more than worthwhile investment. And that's not even counting the Macdonald stories that follow.
Nolan's "Archer In Memory" is, in its own unassuming way, literary enough to seem Borges-like in the way it reconstructs a particular world. Though Nolan sticks to the facts, he ends up doing a bit of speculating, particularly when it comes to Archer's final days. Could it have been Alzheimer's, a malady that struck down Macdonald- after all, Archer becomes increasingly forgetful in his later books. Or did Archer, always a moving target, succumb to gun violence in a city where, according to Nolan, handguns are nearly as plentiful as new cars. But Nolan leaves questions hanging in the air, and in the place of answer he postulates a simple fade-out and a poem comprised of lines from Macdonald's books, though the words could have come from some forgotten song by Macdonald's old pal Warren Zevon, a man who knew Archer as well as anyone:
"See Archer at night then, one last time, parked perhaps in his car above Mulholland, a single human cell in that luminous organism of an endless city, while a God's-eye camera pulls back and back and back- and the internalized soundtrack of a benignly fraying mind yields pieces of stored-up memory:
The man was in the maze; the maze was in the man. The problem was to love people, to try to serve them... -wish I knew who you were- Got to take a sentimental journey... You'll have to learn a trade. A man is only as good as his conscience... Ora pro nobis."
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.