Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
Lew Archer is hired because millionaire Ralph Sampson may or may not have been kidnapped. There’s no shortage of possible suspects as Sampson traveled in strange social circles, including a fringe religious leader and an aging actress that moonlights as an astrologer and dominatrix. He also pushed around him employees and flaunted his wealth. As Archer tracks down available leads he discovers criminal enterprises ranging from human trafficking to murder, and all the while he can’t shake the suspicion someone in Sampson’s own family might have a hand in the man’s disappearance. Uncertain of who he can trust—including the police—Archer jumps into the investigation with both feet, trusting his instincts and determination to see everyone through.
Lew Archer’s Rules of the Road
An interesting element of the novel is Archer’s self-diagnosis of being an action junkie. He confesses to Miranda, “I like a little danger. Tame danger, controlled by me. It gives me a sense of power, I guess” (Macdonald 109). He does his job because he believes in doing right by his clients, but his actions show him to be a restless man who plunges into trouble. It is likely this behavior is why he doesn’t have many close friends and why his wife has left him (20). This thrill-seeking is evidenced by the risks he takes during the investigation such as sneaking onto Hollywood studio sets, trespassing, getting Fay drunk to get her to talk and gain access to her home, driving fast on mountain roads, setting up his own watch-point for the ransom drop, getting tough with the police, following kidnappers alone, provoking a fight with Puddler, confronting Taggert with circumstantial evidence, sneaking up on Tray and Marcie while they’re torturing Betty, and his confrontation with his friend, Bert Graves (35-9; 43; 53-66; 108; 135; 146; 153-5; 167; 182-4; 205-8; 232-7). This litany of risk-taking proves his character much more than him just talking about it as he does with Miranda.
In part because of Archer’s restlessness the story moves quickly. Even when Archer isn’t necessarily making headway on the case, he is getting himself into trouble, which keeps the book lively and entertaining. This character trait also sets Archer apart from previous hard-boiled protagonists whose actions are more informed by a sense of ethical duty. In “The Simple Art of Murder” Raymond Chandler says of a hard-boiled protagonist, “He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor--by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world” (Chandler 18). Archer fits some of those criteria but not all. He’s a good man and relentless but also flawed an aware of his propensity to invite himself into dangerous situations.
West Coast Noir
The most common vice in the story is envy, making the novel a long meditation on the peril of coveting what is out of reach. Fay wants to still be seen as important and famous, Taggert and Betty want an easy way to wealth and security, and Miranda wants an elusive happiness she believes other people obtained. The clearest case of this theme is Bert Graves and Archer’s thoughts on him at the novel’s conclusion:
There may have been a time when Graves didn’t care about money. There may be places where he could have stayed that way. Santa Teresa isn’t one of them. Money is the lifeblood of this town. If you don’t have it, you’re only half alive. It must have galled him to work for millionaires and handle their money and have nothing of his own. Suddenly he saw his chance to be a millionaire himself. (242)
The temptation to take what others have becomes too much for many of the characters. Readers expect deviant characters like Troy, Claude, and Fay to fall victim to their envy, but someone like Graves, who represents the law, shocks the audience with his slide into criminality.
There is also the tangle of who is committing what crimes and the number of betrayals on all sides as everyone scrambles to get what they can out of a chaotic situation whether it be money, revenge, or a shot at the life characters think they deserve. While these elements do take time and attention to unravel, the novel’s plot is less convoluted that some of Macdonald’s other novels like The Chill and The Instant Enemy.
The Moving Target is propulsive and interesting, introducing readers to Lew Archer the caliber of troubles in which he finds himself. Macdonald’s efforts certainly help elevated him to the ranks of his literary forbearers.
Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” The Simple Art of Murder. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1988.
Macdonald, Ross. The Moving Target. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard, 1998.
- Review of The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
Grab a shovel because Seth Tomko reviews The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald.
© 2016 Seth Tomko