The Case of the Split Man
Learning from Lew
Have You Ever Thought about Doing Something Serious, Like Detective Fiction?
Archer Takes the Case
Memories and Debts
The Private Eye of Ross Macdonald
The Works of Ross Macdonald
The Ross Macdonald Files, created by Swedish crime fiction enthusiast Karl-Erik Lindkvist, is the Web's top Macdonald resource. It contains a fairly detailed backgrounder on private eye Lew Archer, a chronology of Macdonald's life, and useful descriptions of his novels.
The Thrilling Detective offers more biographical material on Ross Macdonald, an extensive list of his works and the books about him, and information regarding movie and TV adaptations of Macdonald's fiction.
"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."
Half a century ago this month, a struggling Southern California writer named Kenneth Millar published his first novel about a divorced former cop-turned-private eye, Lew Archer. Set in post-war Los Angeles, it was called The Moving Target. And because Millar wanted to distinguish this detective-genre work from the "serious" fiction he hoped to pen under his own name, he chose a pseudonym: "John Macdonald" (his father's first and middle names).
The book was not an easy success. Millar had begun the Archer story only after getting hopelessly bogged down in "the sloppy feelings and groping prose" of an autobiographical yarn (never published) called Winter Solstice. The original title for his debut detective novel, The Snatch, was rejected as "perfectly impossible," and Alfred A. Knopf, the distinguished U.S. publisher of his previous four books (all stand-alone thrillers), initially refused to buy his Archer work, recommending that Millar "put this book to one side, writing it off as a bad debt." But Millar persisted, and in April 1949, The Moving Target finally saw print.
Raymond Chandler, who by then was recognized as the dean of American detective-fiction writers, wasn't at all flattered by this new novel's obvious debts to his own oeuvre, particularly The Big Sleep (which had introduced Chandler's LA gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, 10 years earlier); he thought Macdonald's prose was strained and the "pretentiousness" of his phrasing "rather repellent." But professional critics were more generous, especially Anthony Boucher of The New York Times Book Review, who dubbed Target "the most human and disturbing novel of the hard-boiled school in many years." He was more earthy in his direct praise to author Millar: "You can write like a son of a bitch," Boucher proclaimed.
Millar/Macdonald continued to write like a son of a bitch for the next three decades. By the time he published his sixth Archer adventure, The Barbarous Coast (1956), he'd changed his nom de plume to "Ross Macdonald" (ending years of confusion with another mystery novelist, John D. MacDonald). With his seventh Archer, The Doomsters (1958), his first book to extensively explore a multigenerational family saga as the basis of its plot, Macdonald felt he had made "a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition." That was followed by The Galton Case (1959), certainly his most personal work up to that point, featuring a troubled young man who, like Macdonald himself, had been born in California, moved to Canada, and then finally returned to California. (A chronology of the author's life can be seen at http://hem1.passagen.se/caltex/chron.html)
Before his death from Alzheimer's disease in 1983, Macdonald would compose another 10 Archer books, including The Goodbye Look (1969), which put Macdonald on the bestseller charts and paved the way for his popular triumphs with The Underground Man (1971), Sleeping Beauty (1973), and The Blue Hammer (1976). Two of his Archer stories were made into theatrical films, both starring Paul Newman: Harper (1966), based on The Moving Target; and The Drowning Pool (1975). The Underground Man was adapted (loosely) into a made-for-TV feature in 1974, starring Peter Graves, and a year later, Brian Keith played Lew Archer in a short-lived American TV series called, simply, Archer.
After The Goodbye Look hit bookstores, novelist/screenwriter William Goldman (who'd written the script for Harper) declared the Archer novels "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." Simultaneously, John Leonard of The New York Times stated in print what others had already realized: that Millar/Macdonald -- who had once considered his private-eye fiction a mere sideline while he crafted more "significant" literature -- had transcended the genre to become "a major American novelist." Ever since, his books have been the subjects of literary analyses and college studies. They've helped inspire new generations of writers -- from Robert B. Parker and Sue Grafton, to Roger Simon, Jonathan Kellerman, S.J. Rozan, James Ellroy, and Richard Barre -- to further explore and expand the detective-fiction field. And 25 years after the author's demise, the Archer tales remain in print, most of them recently reissued in trade-paperback size by Vintage Books. (See "The Private Eye of Ross Macdonald.")
To celebrate 50 years in the thrall of Lew Archer, this month January Magazine is presenting a series of essays and interviews related to Ross Macdonald and his works.
We talk with Tom Nolan, author of the outstanding new Ross Macdonald: A Biography. Kevin Smith explores the background and attractions of Macdonald's familiar story theme of lost children in peril. Detective novelist Gary Phillips explains how he learned to write in Macdonald's intimidating shadow. We offer a very personal tribute to the late author by one of his protégés, Frederick Zackel, and critic Karl-Erik Lindkvist picks his three favorite Archer novels. On top of all this, we've solicited opinions on Macdonald and his influence from a wide range of modern crime novelists, including Michael Connelly, Loren D. Estleman, Lawrence Block, Martha C. Lawrence, Stuart Kaminsky, Max Allan Collins, S.J. Rozan, and many others.
"I wanted to write as well as I possibly could," Macdonald explained way back in 1953, "to deal with life-and-death problems in contemporary society. And the form of Wilkie Collins and Graham Greene, of Hammett and Chandler, seemed to offer me all the rope I would ever need." A less talented or less patient or not-so-self-reflective writer might have hanged himself with that rope. Macdonald used it to ensnare millions of readers around the globe. Few private-eye novelists seem destined to be remembered as fondly by history as Macdonald. As Robert B. Parker once wrote, "[I]n his craft and his integrity [Macdonald] made the detective form a vehicle for high seriousness. It is not that others hadn't tried, it was that he succeeded."
Son of a bitch. | April 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.