Ross Macdonald Essay - Macdonald, (John) Ross (Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar)

Macdonald, (John) Ross (Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar)

Macdonald, (John) Ross (Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) 1915–

An American detective writer, Macdonald is the creator of Lew Archer, a hard-nosed detective in the style of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Ross Macdonald's early books, written under his own name of Kenneth Millar, are uneven, but they show that vividness in the use of metaphor and simile which from the beginning pulled his work out of the ruck of reasonably well-written hardboiled stories. Blue City (1947), the best of these early books, is about the son of a murdered man coming back to a Midwestern town to find his father's killer. The development owes something to Hammett, but the turns of phrase are striking….

In the first half-dozen Lew Archer stories, written under the name of John Ross Macdonald, the setting is always California, sometimes its rich face and often its dirty backside; the plots are densely complicated; there is a great deal of gun play. The books are written with the exuberance and zest of a man intoxicated by his own skill with epithets. Chandler criticized Macdonald harshly, much too harshly, for saying that a car was "acned with rust" and for calling the words and drawings on lavatory walls "graffiti."… If you turn to almost any page, you are likely to be jerked to attention rather than lulled into repose, and that must be a good thing. A random opening of pages in three different books, all of them early Archer, gave "He had a bulldog face whose only expression was a frozen ferocity intended to scare off trespassers."… "I caught glimpses of glass-and-aluminum living machines gleaming like surgical equipment in the clinical moonlight."… "Geoff had lived too long among actors. He was a citizen of the unreal city, a false front leaning on scantlings." There is occasionally a sense of strain about such writing, but more often it seems finely appropriate to the frenetic world that is being described. If all this talent and energy could be more closely harnessed, if there were a little less violence and a little more detachment, it seemed that Macdonald might be not merely the lineal successor to Hammett and Chandler but even their superior.

The development that one hoped for has not quite taken place. Macdonald's later books are in many ways better than the early ones. They are composed with less violence, more subtlety, more satisfactory plots. The quality of the observation gives pleasure; the view of California as a place of immense beauty made ugly by man is expressed with passion; there is a lot of sympathetic and discerning characterization, particularly of the young. All these later books are good, and it is only naming personal preferences to mention particularly The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) and The Far Side of the Dollar (1964). Yet an impression that Macdonald has repeated too often the quest for personal identity and the investigation of the past that marks these books, that he has been too easily content with the things he can do well, remains. Perhaps it is a pity that he has retained Archer in every story; perhaps his talent would have flowered more finely and more variously if he had sometimes looked for a setting and a theme outside California. But of course a writer must be judged by what he has actually done, and such conjecture is more or less idle. At his best, Macdonald is as good a writer as Chandler, and that should not be taken for light praise.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 189-90.

Macdonald has achieved what few mystery writers can claim: literary respectability and popular success at the same time. Lew Archer, his world-worn hero and shrewd observer of the foibles of fate, would not miss the irony—the crime novelist, ignored and virtually unreviewed for years, achieving serious literary acclaim for works that aren't as good as some of his earlier books.

And now we have Sleeping Beauty … and, good as it is, it brings a twinge of disappointment. All of Macdonald's trademarks are there—the crisp, crackling dialogue, a beautifully constructed story skein that unwinds inexorably, the search into past and psyche, the frantic southern California life. Perhaps it is that middle-aging Lew Archer is a trifle weary himself as case after case leads him to some terrible crime from the past that explodes to shatter a family a generation or two later. By now, you pick up a new Lew Archer novel and immediately begin trying to piece together tangled kinships and hidden family secrets (could he be the lost father or the first husband?) because you know that is what will be revealed in the end. Archer was bred in the hardboiled, tough private-eye school, but it is the Freudian vein, not the jugular, that he goes for….

But Macdonald does it well, if again and again. He is an honest writer, a talented craftsman. He adds a psychological and social dimension to mystery writing, providing what he once characterized as "a branch of the novel which offers a changing image and interpretation of a constantly changing society."

Lew Archer's southern California is the land of the freeway, with a fast-moving lifestyle to match the fast-moving traffic; the land of the new rich with their houses and egos clinging precariously to the hillsides; the land of restless, rootless human beings lost in a technological society. Macdonald's crime novels give a better feel for this life and the people than a lot of serious fiction.

In Sleeping Beauty, one of the villains is an oil spill "that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood." Macdonald, who has walked picket lines himself with environmentalists, conveys a sense of outrage over ecological as well as human brutality.

Jean White, "Going for the Freudian Vein," in Book World—The Washington Post, (© The Washington Post), May 20, 1973, p. 12.

[While] Macdonald as a genre writer may be first-rate, as a novelist he is, at least in this new novel ["The Sleeping Beauty"] so raw as to be nearly inedible; and I suspect the praise that's been showered on him is less a measure of his stature than a judgment on his competition. "Sleeping Beauty" is a book more built than written, a methodical account framed in language generally too dim to call for much praise.

On the plus side, the hero, Lew Archer, is appealing, perhaps because he has lived on thousands of previous pages and thus achieved an understood complexity even for a reader encountering him here for the first time. As a private eye, he's a thorough performer whose calm authority pulls the reader unprotesting into his world; as a man, he is long-suffering, essentially nonviolent, impressive in his self knowledge, strict in his ethics….

[Careless] detail work shreds the plot at every turn, as does the inevitable questionnaire form of the dialogue (a fault more likely inherent in the form than in the author). There are sharp observations that fix a mood with some originality…. But these are overpowered by fistfuls of phrases numbing in their void….

[The] story cracks along vividly enough when freed of its bad prose and ponderous philosophizing. Since it's foul play to say more of the plot of a detective novel than is said on the dust jacket, I'll note only that "Sleeping Beauty" absorbs the willing reader in complication upon convolution, adroitly flooding in false leads right to the end. If you care to play it like a chess game, it's a good one.

We have two books here: a professionally crafted and largely satisfying detective story, to which has been welded a tentative overlay of Larger Things—a literary pretension that somewhat vitiates a plausible fiction. That fact need not turn off the author's many admirers. But it should give his more thoughtful critics pause.

Crawford Woods, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1973, p. 55.