Ross Macdonald is the main pseudonym that was used by the American-Canadian writer of crime fiction Kenneth Millar (/ˈmɪlər/; December 13, 1915 – July 11, 1983). He is best known for his series of hardboiled novels set in Southern California and featuring private detective Lew Archer.
Brought up in Ontario, Canada, Macdonald eventually settled in California, where he died in 1983.
December 13, 1915
Los Gatos, California
|Died||July 11, 1983 (aged 67)|
Santa Barbara, California
|Pen name||John Macdonald, John Ross Macdonald, Ross Macdonald|
|Alma mater||University of Michigan|
Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, and raised in his Canadian parents' native Kitchener, Ontario, where he started college. When his father abandoned his family unexpectedly, Macdonald lived with his mother and various relatives, moving several times by his 16th year. In Canada, he met and married Margaret Sturm in 1938. They had a daughter, Linda, who died in 1970.
Millar began his career writing stories for pulp magazines and used his real name for his first four novels. Of these he completed the last, The Dark Tunnel, in 1944. After serving at sea as a naval communications officer from 1944 to 1946, Millar returned to Michigan, where he obtained his Ph.D. degree in literature.
For his fifth novel, in 1949, 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 his pen name briefly to John Ross Macdonald, before settling on Ross Macdonald in order to avoid being confused with fellow mystery writer John D. MacDonald, who was writing under his real name. Millar would use the pseudonym "Ross Macdonald" on all his fiction from the mid '50s forward.
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. In these the city in which Lew Archer is based goes under the fictional name of Santa Teresa. In 1983 Macdonald died of Alzheimer's disease.
Macdonald first introduced the tough but humane private eye Lew Archer in the 1946 short story "Find the Woman" (credited then to "Ken Millar"). A full-length novel featuring him, The Moving Target, followed in 1949 and was the first in a series of eighteen. Macdonald mentions in the foreword to the Archer in Hollywood omnibus that his detective derives his name from Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, and from Lew(is) Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, though he was patterned on Philip Marlowe.
The novels were hailed by genre fans and literary critics alike. The Lew Archer novels are recognized as some of the most significant American mystery books of the mid 20th century, bringing a literary sophistication to the genre. The critic John Leonard declared that Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become "a major American novelist". He has also been called the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the master of American hardboiled mysteries.
Macdonald's writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters. Their plots of "baroque splendor" were complicated and often turned on Archer's unearthing family secrets of upwardly mobile clients, sometimes going back over several generations. Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels. Critics have commented favorably on Macdonald's deft combination of the two sides of the mystery genre, the "whodunit" and the psychological thriller. Even his regular readers seldom saw a Macdonald denouement coming.
Screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted Macdonald's stories to film, called his works "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American". Tom Nolan in his Ross Macdonald, A Biography, wrote, "By any standard he was remarkable. His first books, patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a postwar California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classic myths. 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."
Over his career, Macdonald was presented with only two awards. In 1974, he received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and in 1982 he received "The Eye", the Lifetime Achievement Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America.
Allison & Busby published three Archer omnibus editions in the 1990s.
Millar's first four novels, all non-series standalones, were all initially published using his real name. They have since been intermittently reissued, sometimes as by "Ross Macdonald".
Two later non-series novels were also published. One was credited to John Ross Macdonald, the other simply to Ross Macdonald.