Lew Archer’s Love Life in One Paragraph
Between 1949 and 1976, Macdonald published 19 Lew Archer novels and one book of Lew Archer short stories, plus six non-Archer books. In the output of his entire working life, Macdonald only relates one positive romantic relationship that unfolds during the story. That sole example is in his very last book, The Blue Hammer. Even that incident is related in a few lines and there is no hint that it will be any more lasting than any of the others.
Lew Archer and the Male Gaze
We are only about a fifth of the way through Macdonald’s body of work and a disturbing number of passages have emerged already:
“The unattached [prostitutes] began to converge on me like hens at feeding time . . . Their breasts swung forward and the rouged tips looked at me like sullen eyes.”
—Trouble Follows Me
“Her navel and two nipples made a cartoon of another face, a long and mournful one. Whenever he saw that face instead of a body, he knew he’d had enough of a girl.”
—The Three Roads
“She looked at me with blank loathing . . . The upper faces of her breast gleamed through the fabric of her uniform like cold trembling moons. ”
–The Ivory Grin
“Her small sharp breasts pressed angrily against the cloth.”
—The Moving Target
“’You’re losing your looks,’ I said. ’Murders take it out of a woman . . . . You’ll have no looks left, even if you survive. Even if you survive, the police will finish the job. You’re vulnerable as hell.’”
—The Way Some People Die
Macdonald was not a misogynist. In some respects he was ahead of his time. Unlike many of his contemporaries in 1952, he does not think that women are inferior to men. He was married to a fellow-writer, thought well of her work, and the two of them arranged their lives to accommodate the other’s work habits. Many of his female characters are women of accomplishment. In The Three Roads, for example, Paula West is not merely the girl waiting back home. She is a woman of power. She lives well, based on her own talent. In that same book, Macdonald makes it clear that the subordination of women is rooted more in economics than any real gender differences. Lorraine Taylor has few options because of her lack of education and a culturally deprived upbringing. Paula, who had those advantages, has achieved more than many men—and clearly out earns anything Brett Taylor can be expected to make.
So Why the Negativity?
Macdonald was a romantic, even a passionate man, married to a woman who caused him endless frustration and unhappiness. The experiences of his youth and the early years of his marriage had impaired his ability to conduct a positive romantic relationship. God displayed His perverse sense of humor in throwing the two of them together. But like many people of his generation, the fact that his marriage was deeply unhappy was not a sufficient reason to end it. Macdonald’s childhood was spent in poverty and he grew to maturity during the Depression. For many people of his generation, life was not about finding as much pleasure as possible; it was about gritting one’s teeth and making do. Tom Nolan relates a story of how Macdonald cut off one of his closest friends when the man divorced his wife. Macdonald had no respect for men who did not live up to their obligations.
Macdonald emphasized the negative, even grotesque elements of the female body as a means of dealing with his own frustrations. He wasn’t going to leave Margaret no matter how miserable she made him. Imagining the joys that he might have found with another woman would have made him even more unhappy.
Was it a good personal strategy for him? It allowed him to pursue a lifelong marriage. Whether that was good for him is not for me to say.
Was it good for his writing?
I am going to answer yes. His pessimism eliminated the kind of romantic subplots that many PI writers employ (although Archer does have a brief and implausible dalliance with the wife of a suspect in Sleeping Beauty). But it is also an important part of Archer’s bleak world. His detective inhabits a world where love is used as a weapon—and not just between husbands and wives, but between parents and children as well.