Ross Macdonald

Pseudonym of Ken Millar
(1915-83)

“No once since Macdonald has written with such poetic inevitability about people, their secret cares, their emotional scars, their sadness, cowardice, and courage. He reminded the rest of us of what was possible in our genre.”
John Lutz, in January Magazine

“We’re all guilty”
Lew Archer, in The Blue Hammer

Kenneth Millar, under the pen name of Ross Macdonald, arguably forms the third point of what is now considered the Holy Trinity of hardboiled detective fiction, the other points being, of course, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and is, to many, the most critically and academically respected of the three.

Although born in Los Gatos, California, December 13th, 1915, he was raised and educated in Canada by his mother, a never particularly healthy woman, and a succession of relatives, after she and his father, a sometime sailor/poet/writer, separated. “I counted the number of rooms I had lived in during my first sixteen years, and got a total of fifty,” he has written. This rootlessness, and the hole left by an absent parent, was to become a recurring motif in Millar’s fiction.

He attended boarding schools, and in 1938, he took a break from his studies at the University of Western Ontario to travel for a year in Europe, including a visit to Nazi Germany. He returned to Canada, married Margaret Sturm, and acquired advanced degrees and a Phi Beta Kappa key at the University of Michigan. He began to teach and, inspired by his wife’s success as a writer (yes, she was THAT Margaret Millar), he began to write, tentatively at first. In 1939, their daughter, Linda, was born.

And then World War II, came along. Perhaps unconciouslessly following in his seaman father’s footsteps, Millar served as communications officer aboard an escort carrier in the Pacific with the American navy. Stationed in California, Margaret went down to visit him in 1946, and the couple decided to stay on. They lived in Santa Barbara for the rest of their lives. At this point, Millar had gone full circle, returning to his birthplace, with a family once more.

Life was good, or at least appeared to be. Both Millar (under the pen name of first John Macdonald, then John Ross Macdonld and finally Ross Macdonald) and Margaret were regularly being published. Millar had  at first tried his hand spy novels and thrillers, but soon settled on a new series, featuring private detective Lew Archer, beginning with 1949’s The Moving Target.

And yet his past would not be denied–it lurked, waiting to pounce. Meanwhile, his own family life was less than ideal–there were difficulties in the marriage, and Linda was a troubled child. Therapy helped, and 1959’s novel, The Galton Case, became a watershed, both personally and artistically, in Millar’s life. Archer’s (and Millar’s) obsession with the twisted, secret history of families, and how the sins of the past shape the present, were finally nailed down, for all who cared to see. Although the early Archer’s were well-written and tightly plotted, The Galton Case really got down to business. From that point on, it has been noted, Macdonald wrote the same story over and over, endless variations on the same themes of lost and abandoned children, absent parents, family secrets denied. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would amount to hack work, perhaps. But not in Macdonald’s hands.

As Tyler Sage of The Times Literary Supplement noted:

One of the achievements of Ross Mac­donald (the pen name of Kenneth Millar) was to take this set of concerns (of the traditional hard-boiled novel) and turn it inward. Macdonald wrote about wealth and poverty, ambition and deception, the vacuity of Southern California culture. But his deepest obsession was with the horrors of family life and the way those horrors form us when we are young

In 1969, a favorable front page review in The New York Times Book Review by William Goldman of Millar’s latest Archer novel, The Goodbye Look, followed by an interview by John Leonard, finally brought him the critical attention he had always felt was his due, and certainly the critical respect his reputation was jump-started. But his popularity (he supposedly sold a whole hell of a lot of books–one article I read recently mentioned “Stephen King-like sales”) must be based on more than a few pieces in the NYTBR.

In fact, as contributor Jim Doherty points out:

“…although the articles referred to did seem to confirm Macdonald’s status , they were not the beginning of his being thought of as the “Holy Ghost” to Hammett’s “Father” and Chandler’s “Son.” If there is any one critic who put Macdonald in that august company, it was Anthony Boucher, who once said that, without in the least diminishing his admiration for Hammett and Chandler, he believed that Macdonald was the best writer of the three. I believe he said that in the early ’60s. Certainly, critics started using the phrase “in the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald” as early as the ’60s. The fact that Knopf was the publisher of all three also lent some gravitas to Macdonald, as did the fact that Hammett’s first PI novel appeared in ’29, Chandler’s in ’39, and Macdonald’s in ’49 made it seem like a natural development in the PI novel was taking place.

While Macdonald may not have been perceived as the equal of Hammett and Chandler as early as the ’50s, he was certainly the most critically acclaimed PI writer of that decade. Michael Avallone (RIP) was the one who coined the “Father, Son, & Holy Ghost” quip to describe Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald, again, I beleive, in the early ’60s. The critical and commercial success of the film Harper, based on Macdonald’s first novel The Moving Target, in ’66 added to his luster. All this predates the articles in Newsweek and the NY Time Book Review. These really were the culmination of a long process of critical acclaim that greeted Macdonald almost from the first.”

Were all those fans taken in? For a lot of people, the Lew Archer books are a literary touchstone in their lives, and certainly in mine. I read one, on the recommendation of a friend, and I had soon devoured every one I could find. And at the time I knew nothing of Macdonald’s critical rep, other than a few scattered cover blurbs.

Certainly, some of the puffery about Macdonald, particularly by Macdonald himself, is hard to swallow. And not all the books are that strong. Then again, he wrote lots of books, more than Hammett and Chandler combined. And he did take the crime novel in directions it had never really gone before, and sold a lot of books doing it.

Archer was perhaps the first of the compassionate eyes to truly make a mark, and ushered in a whole new psychological depth to the hard-boiled detective story. Millar’s other interests included conservation and politics. He charted the fascinating and ever-evolving society of his native state, although his main thrust would be the twisted and hidden secrets of the human heart, the hidden truths that dog victim and murderer alike. And in the long run, he’s remained a strong influence on the hard-boiled genre, like it or not.

Certainly you can see traces of Archer’s compassion (or bleeding heart weenie-ness, depending on your point of view) in the work of Robert Parker, Robert Crais, Michael Collins, Bill Pronzini, Sue Grafton, Joseph Hansen, Jonathan Valin , George Pelecanos and Stephen Greenleaf, among countless others. Someone must have actually read the books, and not just a few newspaper pieces.

Macdonald served as president of The Mystery Writers of America inj 1965, received the Silver Dagger in 1964 and the Gold Dagger in 1965 from The British Crime Writers Association, and in 1981, received The Eye, the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Private Eye Writers of America.

He died on July 11, 1983, of Alzheimer’s disease; a tragic irony, given that it was the past and the memories of it that drove his finest work. But he left behind a body of work that has forever left its mark on detective fiction.

The Archer novels ask us to not so much solve the mysteries of our own lives, but more importantly, perhaps, to try to understand them.

UNDER OATH

  • “… the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American”
    — William Goldman
  • “If Dashiell Hammett can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.”
    — Sue Grafton, from the introduction to Ross Macdonald: A Biography
  • “… a more serious and complex writer than Hammet and Chandler ever were.”
    — Eudora Welty
  • Ross Macdonald impressed me for the quality and beauty of his writing. I still, reading through them, come upon passages, especially his descriptions of characters, that I wish I had the courage to steal. He’s also a master at the well-honed plot that takes Lew Archer, and thus the reader, back a generation to find the source of the crime. He’s compassionate, apparently well read, and decent… (he’s) my favorite detective.”
    — Donna Leon
  • “(The) American private eye, immortalized by Hammett, refined by Chandler, brought to its zenith by Macdonald”
    — New York Times Book Review
  • “…the greatest mystery novelist of his age, I would argue, even greater than Chandler.”
    –John Connolly, creator of Charlie Parker; cited in The Line-Up.

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

  • as Kenneth Millar
  • “The South Sea Soup Co.” (1931, The Grumbler)
  • “Find the Woman” (June 1946, EQMM; Lew Archer)
  • “The Sky Hook” (January 1948, American Mercury)
  • “The Bearded Lady” (October 1948, American Magazine; Lew Archer)
  • “Shock Treatment” (January 1953, Manhunt)
  • “The Imaginary Blonde” (February 1953, Manhunt; aka “Gone Girl”; Lew Archer)
  • “Murder in the Library” (1965, Mystery Writers’ Annual)
  • as John Ross Macdonald
  • “The Guilty Ones” (May 1953, Manhunt; aka “The Sinister Habit”; Lew Archer)
  • “The Beat-Up Sister” (October 1953, Manhunt; aka “The Suicide”; Lew Archer)
  • “Guilt-Edged Blonde” (January 1954, Manhunt; Lew Archer)
  • “Wild Goose Chase” ( July 1954, EQMM; Lew Archer)
  • as Ross Macdonald
  • “Midnight Blue” (October 1960, Ed McBain’s Mystery Magazine; Lew Archer)
  • “The Sleeping Dog” (April 1965, Argosy; Lew Archer)

COLLECTIONS

  • The Name is Archer (1955; as John Ross Macdonald; Lew Archer)
    Includes “Find the Woman,” “Gone Girl,” “The Bearded Lady,” “The Suicide,” “Guilt-Edged Blonde,” “The Sinister Habit” and “Wild Goose Chase”
  • Lew Archer, Private Investigator (1977; Lew Archer)
    All the stories from The Name is Archer, plus “Midnight Blue” and “The Sleeping Dog”
  • Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Stories (2001; Lew Archer)Buy this book
    Previously unpublished stories, edited by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, one featuring Joe Rogers (who was also in Macdonald’s 1st EQMM short, which was later re-written to star Lew Archer) and two with Lew Archer.
  • The Archer Files (2007; Lew Archer)Buy this book
    Finally, all the Archer stories collected in one volume, plus bits and pieces of several unfinished Archer stories and novels, compiled by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, as well as his astounding biographical essay on Lew Archer. It doesn’t get any better than this for Macdonald fans.
  • Four Novels of the 1950s (2015, Lew Archer)Buy this book
    Fancy pancy Library of America edition of The Way Some People Die, The Barbarous Coast, The Doomsters and The Galton Case, plus a handful of essays by MacDonald that shine a light on how he came to create Lew Archer.
  • Three Novels of the Early 1960s (2015, Lew Archer) | Buy this book
    Collects The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Chill and The Far Side of the Dollar. Annotated by perennial Macdonald Man Tom Nolan. From the Library of America.
  • Four Later Novels (2016, Lew Archer)Buy this book
    Collects Black Money, The Instant Enemy, The Goodbye Look and The Underground Man. From the Library of America.
  • The Ross Macdonald Collection: Eleven Classic Lew Archer Novels (2017)Buy this book
    Collects all three of the Library of America editions (eleven novels), housed in a slipcover, andaannotated by Tom Nolan.

SHORT NON-FICTION, ESSAYS & OTHER WRITINGS

  • “Fatal Facility” (July 29, 1939, Saturday Night; poem)
  • “Homage to Dashiell Hammett” 1964, Mystery Writers’ Annual)
  • “A Death Road for the Condor” (April 6, 1964, Sports Illustrated)
  • “The Writer as Detective Hero” (January 1965, Show)
  • “Cain X 3” (March 2, 1969, New York Times Book Review)
  • “Life with the Blob” (April 21, 1969, Sports Illustrated)
  • “Santa Barbarans Cite an 11th Commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Abuse the Earth'” (October 12, 1969, New York Times Magazine; with Robert Easton)
  • “Down These Streets a Mean Man Must Go” (Spring/Summer 1977, Antaeus #25-26)
  • “The Private Detective” (October 23, 1977, The New York Times Book Review; also used as introduction to Lew Archer, Private Investigator)
  • “Writing The Galton Case” (1973, On Crime Writing; also includes “The Writer as Detective Hero”)
  • “Lew Archer” (1978, The Great Detectives)
  • “A Preface to ‘The Galton Case'” (1969, Afterwords: Novelists on Their Novels)
  • “Foreword” (From Archer at Large, an omnibus featuring three of the Archer novels)

FILMS

  • HARPER | Buy the DVD Buy this Blu-ray Watch it now!
    (1966)
    Based on The Moving Target by John Macdonald
    Starring Paul Newman
  • THE DROWNING POOL | Buy the DVD Buy the Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    (1975)
    Based on the novel by John Macdonald
    Starring Paul Newman
  • DEADLY COMPANION
    aka “Double Negative

    (1980)
    Based on the Novel The Three Roads by Ken Millar
    Adapted by Thomas Hedley Jr.
    Screenplay by Thomas Hedley Jr. and Charles Dennis
    Directed by George Bloomfield
    Starring Michael Sarrazin, Susan Clark, Anthony Perkins, Howard Duff, Kate Reid, Al Waxman, Kenneth Welsh, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Maury Chaykin, Catherine O’Hara, Michael Ironside, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy
    The most Canadian (and strangest) film ever made based on a Ross Macdonald book. Sarrazin, Clark, Waxman, Ironside and Welsh are all Canadian, Chaykin might as well have been, and Candy, Flaherty, O’Hara, Thomas and Levy (all in bit parts) were all part of the cast of the Canadian comedy show SCTV, which was on hiatus when this film was being made. The director was also Canadian, and had worked on SCTV for its first three seasons.
  • BLUE CITY
    (1986, Paramount Pictures)
    Written by Lukas Heller and Walter Hill
    Based on the novel by Ken Millar
    Directed by Michelle Manning
    Music by Ry Cooder
    Starring Judd Nelson as Billy Turner
    and Ally Sheedy as Annie Rayford
    Also starring David Caruso, Paul Winfield, Scott Wilson
    The Brat Pack goes noir. This one must have really sucked. It was nominated for five Razzies, including Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actor (Nelson) and Worst Actress (Sheedy). Then again, Ry Cooder did the music, so your mileage may vary.
  • THE WOLF OF THE WEST COAST
    (2002)
    Based on the short story “The Guilt-Edged Blonde” byJohn Ross Macdonald.

TELEVISION

  • THE UNDERGROUND MAN
    (1974, NBC)
    Based on the novel by Ross Macdonald
    Starring Peter Graves as LEW ARCHER
  • ARCHER
    (series, January-March 1975)
    Based on characters created by Ross Macdonald
    Starring Brian Keith as LEW ARCHER
  • CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR
    (1992,
    Written by Wendell Mayes
    Based on the novel The Ferguson Affair by Ross Macdonald
    Directed by Michael Miller
    Starring Farrah Fawcett, A Martinez, Dakin Matthews, John Hancock , Cliff De Young, Angela Paton, Nada Despotovich, Andy Robinson, Hugo Napier, Mark La Mu
    Macdonald’s tale of a male lawyer representing a woman accused of theft becomes a made-for-television flick about a female lawyer stalked by a killer.

REFERENCES/BOOKS

  • Wolfe, Peter.
    Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald’s Novels
    Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1976.
  • Speir, Jerry.
    Ross Macdonald
    New York: Ungar, 1978.
  • Bruccoli, Matthew J.
    Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald: A Descriptive Bibliography
    Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983
  • Bruccoli, Matthew J.
    Ross Macdonald
    Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1984
  • Sipper, Ralph B.
    Inward Journey: Reflections on Ross Macdonald by 25 of America’s Most Distinguished Authors
    New York: The Mysterious Press, 1984.
  • Nolan, Tom
    Ross Macdonald: A Biography | Buy this bookKindle it!
    Introduction by Sue Grafton
    New York: Scribner, 1999.
    “An important new bio. According to the author bio Nolan reviews mystery fiction for The Wall Street Journal. A lot of focus on his private life (including) Macdonald’s relationships with Marshall McLuhan, Eudora Welty, and publisher Alfred A. Knopf, and chronicles his long-running literay rivalry with Raymond Chandler) rather than on his writing career. Respectful of Macdonald, yet still enlightening as to some previously obscure facts/episodes in his history. In Nolan’s hands, Ken Millar/Ross Macdonald comes off as a much fuller and sometimes less confident author than he has seemed in earlier bios.” (Keith Logan)
  • Nelson, Paul, & Kevin Avery,
    It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives) | Buy this book
    Fantagraphics, 2016.
    Astoundingly personal and captivating, part serious bibliographical, part biographical memoir, and part fanboy scrapbook, this collection of rare photos and lost interviews and essays pays tribute to one of the all-time greats of our genre, and is essential reading for anyone who ever looked for solutions to their own mysteries in a crime novel.

REFERENCE/ARTICLES

  • “The Mystery of Ross Macdonald” by Matthew J. Bruccoli (January 1984, Saturday Night)
  • “Ross Macdonald’s Literary Offenses” by Bill Delaney (Summer 1986, The Armchair Detective, Vol. 19, No. 3)
  • “Seems Like Old Crimes” by Jeff Siegel (1998, Scarlet Street, No. 29)
  • The Last Testament of Ross Macdonald” (November 2, 2003, The Boston Globe)
    An article by Leonard Cassuto that reveals and discusses Macdonald’s plans for the final Archer book, unfortunately never completed.

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


 

One thought on “Ross Macdonald

  1. Just discovered this site by accident. What a treasure trove of info presented by a witty, intelligent, and talented writer. And the (new) site is well laid out and easy to navigate. Bravo!
    William Douglas

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