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.
The Lew Archer novels are widely recognized as some of the most significant American mystery books of the mid-20th century, bringing unprecedented levels of psychological insight and literary sophistication to the genre. John Leonard, longtime critic for The New York Times Book Review, declared that Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become "a major American novelist".
Brought up in Ontario, Canada, Macdonald eventually settled in California, where he died in 1983.
Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, and raised in his parents' native Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, 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. He began his career writing stories for pulp magazines. Millar attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and a PhD in literature. While doing graduate study, he completed his first novel, The Dark Tunnel, in 1944. For his first four novels, he used his real name. After serving at sea as a naval communications officer from 1944 to 1946, Millar returned to Michigan, where he obtained his PhD degree.
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 wrote under his real name. Millar would use the pseudonym "Ross Macdonald" on all his fiction from the mid-fifties 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 is referred to 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 to "Ken Millar"; he would subsequently use variations of "John Ross Macdonald" on all his writing.) A full-length novel, The Moving Target, followed in 1949. This novel (the first in a series of eighteen) would become the basis for the 1966 Paul Newman film Harper. 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.
Macdonald has been called the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the master of American hardboiled mysteries. His writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters. Author Tom Rizzo has pointed out that Macdonald's plots were complicated, and often turned on Archer's unearthing family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them. 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.
Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Macdonald's writing was hailed by genre fans and literary critics alike. Eudora Welty, a longtime friend and possible lover, was a loyal fan of his work. 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. He received "The Eye", the Lifetime Achievement Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 1982. And in 1974, he received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, after having been nominated three times, but never winning,that organization's Edgar Award for Best Novel, despite critical acclaim in his later years, most especially for The Underground Man, which received numerous positive reviews – including a front page review in "The New York Times" written by Eudora Welty. Macdonald was the MWA organization's president, eight years after his wife, who herself was given the Grand Master Award the year Macdonald died. In May 2015 the Library of America began the publication of a three volume edition of MacDonald's work, edited by Tom Nolan. The first volume includes "Four Novels of the 1950s: The Way Some People Die, The Barbarous Coast, The Doomsters and The Galton Case"; the second volume comprises "Three Novels of the Early 1960s: The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Chill, and The Far Side of the Dollar"; the third and final volume, published in July 2017, covers "Four Later Novels: Black Money, The Instant Enemy, The Goodbye Look and The Underground Man".
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.
Kreyling, Michael. "The Novels of Ross Macdonald" University of South Carolina Press, 2005. ISBN 1-57003-577-6
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