Ross Macdonald (1915-1983)

descargaRoss Macdonald is the pseudonym of American-Canadian writer of mystery fiction and detective fiction Kenneth Millar (1915 – 1983). Born in Los Gatos, California, in the San Francisco Bay area, in 1915, Millar was raised in his parents’ native Canada, where he started college. There he met and married the former Margaret Sturm in 1938. He began his career writing stories for pulp magazines. While doing graduate study at the University of Michigan, he completed his first novel, The Dark Storm, in 1944. At this time, he wrote under the name John Macdonald, in order to avoid confusion with his wife, who was achieving her own success writing as Margaret Millar. He then changed briefly to John Ross Macdonald before settling on Ross Macdonald, in order to avoid mixups with contemporary John D. MacDonald. After serving at sea as a naval communications officer from 1944-46, he returned to Michigan, where he obtained his PhD degree in 1951.

Macdonald first introduced the popular detective Lew Archer, the tough but humane private eye who would inhabit some twenty of his novels, in The Moving Target in 1949. Lew Archer derives his name from Sam Spade’s partner Miles Archer, and from Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. This novel would become the basis for the 1966 Paul Newman film, Harper. In the early 1950s, he returned to California, settling for some thirty years in Santa Barbara, the area where most of his books were set. (Macdonald’s fictional name for Santa Barbara was Santa Teresa; this “pseudonym” for the town was subsequently resurrected by Sue Grafton, whose “alphabet novels” are also set in Santa Barbara.) The very successful Lew Archer series, including bestsellers The Goodbye Look, The Underground Man, and Sleeping Beauty, concluded with The Blue Hammer in 1976.

Heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the master of American “hard boiled” mysteries, his writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters. Macdonald’s plots were complicated, and often turned on Archer’s unearthing family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. Even his regular readers seldom saw a Macdonald denouement coming. Macdonald’s writing was hailed by genre fans and literary critics alike. Author William Golding called his works “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American author”. He died in Santa Barbara in 1983. (Source: Golden Age of Detection Wiki)

Lew Archer novels: The Moving Target (1949), The Drowning Pool (1950), The Way Some People Die (1951), The Ivory Grin aka Marked for Murder (1952), Find a Victim (1954), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Doomsters (1958), The Galton Case (1959), The Wycherly Woman (1961), The Zebra Striped Hearse (1962), The Chill (1964), The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), Black Money (1966), The Instant Enemy (1968), The Goodbye Look (1969), The Underground Man (1971), Sleeping Beauty (1973) and The Blue Hammer (1976).

Other novels: Meet Me at the Morgue aka Experience With Evil (1954) and The Ferguson Affair (1960).

Ross Macdonald’s twenty-four novels fall fairly neatly into three groups: Those in which Lew Archer does not appear form a distinct group, and the Archer series itself, which may be separated into two periods. His first four books, The Dark Tunnel, Trouble Follows Me, Blue City, and The Three Roads, together with two later works, Meet Me at the Morgue and The Ferguson Affair, do not feature Lew Archer. These six novels, especially the first three, are rather typical treatments of wartime espionage or political corruption and are primarily of interest to the extent that they prefigure the concerns of later work. The first six Archer books The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die, The Ivory Grin, Find a Victim, and The Barbarous Coast, introduce and refine the character of Archer, build the society and geography of California into important thematic elements, and feature increasingly complex plots, with multiple murders and plot lines. The next twelve Archer novels constitutes Macdonald’s major achievement. (Source: Analysis of Ross Macdonald’s novels)

Further reading:

After reading the following introduction to The Ferguson Affair, as you might imagine, I have to choose this book and include it on my TBR shelf

Between 1949 and 1976, Ross Macdonald published eighteen detective novels with Lew Archer and only two without him, the wonderfully alliterative Meet Me at the Morgue (1953) and the extremely blandly titled The Ferguson Affair (1960). Though these latter two novels now have been reprinted, like all the Archers, in paperback by the laudable Black Lizard, they get much less attention than the Archer books. I know people like series detectives, but I’ve never felt Lew Archer was that interesting, considered purely as a character. As a conduit for Ross Macdonald’s words and ideas, yes, he is quite interesting, but then so is Bill Gunnarson, the defense attorney investigator in The Ferguson Affair. Frankly, I could not tell the two men apart, really, except that Gunnarson is married, happily, to a wife about to give birth to their child when the novel begins. Gunnarson gets involved in “the Ferguson affair” through a new client of his, a young nurse arrested for selling stolen jewelry.  Through a former–she says–boyfriend the woman seems to be linked to a burglary ring, but is she really innocent?
From this simple enough beginning Gunnarson soon finds himself enmeshed, along with the reader, in a net of criminal circumstances of impressive intricacy. I really have to hand it to Macdonald for so beautifully managing such a complicated plot.  As things develop there are really two mysteries and you’ll be clever indeed if you manage to completely solve even one of them before the author reveals all. (The Passing Tramp)


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC. Alfred A. Knopf (USA), 1960)


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC. Collins The Crime Club (UK), 1961)

Book Description: It was a long way from the million-dollar Foothill Club to Pelly Street, where grudges were settled in blood and Spanish and a stolen diamond ring landed a girl in jail.  Defense lawyer Bill Gunnarson was making the trip—fast.  He already knew a kidnapping at the club was tied to the girl’s hot rock, and he suspected that a missing Hollywood starlet was the key to a busy crime ring.  But while Gunnarson made his way through a storm of deception, money, drugs, and passions, he couldn’t guess how some big shots and small-timers would all end up with murder in common… (Penguin Random House).

The Ferguson Affair has been reviewed, among others at The Passing Tramp.

4 thoughts on “Ross Macdonald (1915-1983)”

  1. Thanks for the reminder that I want to read through all of Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels. I have only read the first two. Since I live in Santa Barbara, his books are especially interesting.

  2. A small correction, Jose. My byline (as it appears on the story “50 Years with Lew Archer,” is J. Kingston Pierce, not simply “J. Kingston.” Thanks for reminding others of Ross Macdonald’s literary triumphs.


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