Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer, by Gabriel Blackwell. Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2012. 286 pages. $13.95, paper.
As told to Joseph Riippi
What follows is, I think, a better review of Gabriel Blackwell’s Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer than I could ever have written on my own. I travel for business, you see. Just in the past week I’ve been to Atlanta, San Antonio, and Los Angeles, with quick trips back to New York in between. I write ads for work, and selling ads is better business in person. Easier to explain why my writing’s better than the competition’s when I can smile and gesture. Everything’s more believable in person.
Which brings me to my point. The LA trip’s what’s important here. I was muttering into the tape recorder on my phone, practicing the campaign set-up, and I had a copy of Blackwell’s book resting on my leg—my reward for the plane. That’s when a man who looked an awful lot like Gabriel Blackwell himself—I met Blackwell once at a reading in Portland, Oregon—sat down next to me, pointed at Blackwell’s book, and asked me if I’d read it yet. When I said no, my tape recorder was still going.
I’ll tell you what, buddy, you’re in for a treat. I’ve read at least a thousand novels, right? Maybe a hundred of ‘em I’d read again. And Shadow Man’s not quite like anything I’ve read before. I mean, take a look at the cover, okay? It’s subtitled A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer. But then, on the back by the barcode, you’ve got it labeled “fiction” so the bookstores know where to stock the damn thing. So it’s a “biography” but not really—that’s just part of Blackwell’s MO, you see, the formal experiment of the thing.
So who the hell is Lewis Miles Archer? Why’s Blackwell—a writer of some note, mind you—bothering to write something about somebody else? He’s the reviews editor at The Collagist and has a collection of prose, essays and stories, coming out from Noemi Press in January 2013. You’d think he’d want to write his own novel, right? Not some biography?
But that’s exactly it! Blackwell’s real achievement with Shadow Man is that he’s created this Lewis Miles Archer character, entirely borrowed and entirely original and slippery as hell. Finding the “true story” in this novel is like trying to trap your own shadow.
The story of Shadow Man, essentially, is that it’s a biography of the inspiration for all those great noir novels of the first half of the twentieth century. Which would make you think it’s an homage of some sort. And it is, yes, particularly when it comes to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target, but Shadow Man exceeds just another pulpy mystery noir in the long line of pulpy mystery noirs. It’s not influenced by them, Shadow Man is the influence itself. It’s the solved mystery behind The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Moving Target—the pillars of all that pulp.
I remember the opening sentence, when Blackwell describes his subject. Let me see if I remember it correctly:
Lewis Miles Archer, or anyhow the man known to creditors and clients as Lewis Miles Archer for just long enough to build up a respectable sheet of both, was born sometime between 1879 and 1888, somewhere in the shadow of Lake Michigan.
Oh! And Blackwell writes the whole book, too, with that great noir-famous language, full of simile, metaphor, hyperbole. The second sentence:
That’s a hole wide enough for a boxcar full of babies to fall through, sure, but then the first time that that name, “Lewis Miles Archer,” rears its salt-and-pepper head in the public record isn’t until 1928, a full forty years later, and on the West Coast.
Lewis Miles Archer turns out to have been the private-detective employer of Hammett, who used his experiences on the job to write The Maltese Falcon. “Miles Archer” became the assistant in that novel, and with Hammett at the helm, “Miles Archer” gets killed off. Meanwhile, as the falcon business proceeds in Shadow Man, Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler get messed up in it, too. Archer even ends up taking on the name “Phillip Marlowe” for a while. Marlowe, of course, was Chandler’s protagonist in The Big Sleep.
So it’s a big mess of who’s who, what’s what, what’s true, what’s not. And that’s what makes noir such a great style to begin with—such an American style, right? Anything can happen, anyone turn out to be anybody else. A child born homeless can grow up to become a respected surgeon; a respected surgeon can turn out to be a drug dealer. Anything’s possible. I mean, here I am sitting next to you and telling you about this book, and for all you know, I could be Lewis Michael Archer’s grandson, or Gabriel Blackwell. Hell, I could just be a figment of your imagination. Just some character you made up in your head.
Fiction’s a powerful thing, isn’t it? When you think about it, there’s really only one objectively “true” story. But when wielded rightly, with a strength and intelligence as profound as Blackwell’s, well, that’s great art.
There’s a wonderful passage in Shadow Man about following your own shadow, supposedly written by Hammett, that you should hear:
[Your shadow’s] there all the time, but you almost never notice it. When it’s right in front of you, it looks like nothing. If it’s going alongside of you, you might catch it out of the corner of your eye, but if you turn to look at it, it’ll turn a little too. Most of the time, it’s behind you, but not so’s you’d notice. It’s slippery, like a railroad accountant on payday.
And just like that, he was gone. The man got up, patted me on the shoulder, said again that I was in for a real treat, and wandered off. No flight had been called, no announcements made. It was strange. I’d thought for sure that this man was Blackwell himself, and that he’d recognized me. Maybe he saw his book on my leg, and figured he’d come over and sort of mess with me a little bit. But Gabe was a nice guy when we met before. Polite. I kept expecting him to break out of this book-review voice he was using and start laughing, ask me how things have been, where I’m headed today.
Anyway, I started reading after boarding the plane and finished it somewhere above Arizona. And the stranger, whoever he was, was right. Shadow Man spun me right around, sucked me into following Blackwell through the stories and half-truths and fictions. How the hell did Blackwell write this? I kept wondering. I might as well be honest—I am damned jealous.
Lastly, not that it’s relevant, or maybe it is, but just as he began telling me about the book the Blackwell-lookalike pulled a leather-bound flask from his breast pocket and took pulls off it intermittently. Maybe that’s why his thoughts seemed a little scattered and hyperbolic. I’ve no idea how he got the flask through security, unless he filled it with duty-free booze after passing through the detectors. But what’s important is what I remembered later. The flask was monogrammed with initials.
Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer at Amazon.com!
Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer at Powell’s City of Books!
Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer at Civil Coping Mechanisms!
Joseph Riippi’s books include A Cloth House (Housefire Books, 2012), The Orange Suitcase (Ampersand Books, 2011), and Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (Ampersand Books, 2009). His next, Research (A Novel for Performance), is forthcoming in 2014 from Civil Coping Mechanisms.