“I like a little danger. Tame danger, controlled by me. It gives me a sense of power, I guess, to take my life in my hands and know damn well I’m not going to lose it.”― Mystery novelist Ross Macdonald (1915-1983), The Moving Target (1949)
I was first exposed to Ross Macdonald and his most famous character, private eye Lew Archer, indirectly: through the Paul Newman film Harper. (The actor—pictured here, of course—in a bit of superstition, decided that a name with the letter “H” might work best, like his prior hits The Hustler and Hud, so the character was re-christened “Harper” for the movies. Amazingly, it worked at the box office once again.)
I thought the character was impossibly cool—flip and gutsy, and I couldn’t wait to see how he sounded on paper. When I finally did get around to Macdonald’s Lew Archer series, it was the later ones that I read first, where the author (and the character) plumbed the haunted lives of families in postwar Southern California—people with untold material prosperity but deep, empty emotional poverty. In the telling, Archer is considerably more thoughtful and introspective than his cinema embodiment.
A couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading the novel that inspired Harper, The Moving Target. Reluctantly, I had to agree with another one of my favorite mystery novelists, Raymond Chandler, that Lew Archer in this case seemed like a knockoff of his own hard-boiled, wisecracking, but incorruptible private eye, Philip Marlowe.
Nevertheless, I remain grateful to Harper for introducing me to the work of Macdonald—and to the novelist himself for showing how an author can move past an undoubted influence in forging his own unique themes, styles and characterization.
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