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Initially, Lew Archer was similar to (if not completely a derivative of) Philip Marlowe. However, he 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. Raymond Chandler's books were 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.
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. He questions 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, though 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, and 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. Key incidents 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, 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."
The character has been adapted for visual media several times: Two feature films starring Paul Newman as "Lew Harper" (rumor supposes the name was changed from the original because Newman felt characters with "H" names were "lucky"):
Warren Zevon was a well-known fan of Ross MacDonald's work; during the 2008 season of the show Californication, a character based loosely on Zevon named "Lew Ashby" was a nod to the Archer character.
Zebra Striped Hearse