Study Guide

Ross Macdonald

Ross Macdonald Essay - Macdonald, Ross (Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) (Vol. 14)

Macdonald, Ross (Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) (Vol. 14)


Macdonald, Ross (Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) 1915–

An American detective story writer in the tradition of Raymond Chandler, Macdonald is the creator of Lew Archer and the author of such best-selling novels as The Goodbye Look, The Underground Man, and The Moving Target. He has also written under the pseudonym of John Ross Macdonald. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Michael Wood

In Ross Macdonald's novels, the past is always falling in on top of the present. Lew Archer, a wise, tired, divorced and lonely private eye, is hired to investigate a theft or a kidnapping or the disappearance of a child, and immediately, as if released by Archer's appearance on the scene, murky old cats begin to leap out of poorly sealed bags. Archer uncovers guilt wherever he goes, and his job, once the cats are all out and howling, is to put them together into a theory, to tie the past to the present, and to catch the whole case in what Macdonald calls, in an early novel, "the final amber." In Macdonald's new book, "The Blue Hammer," Archer tracks the past more obsessively than ever, and the result is the best work Macdonald has done in a number of years….

All detective fiction is fairly theological, given to displays of ultimate coherence, but what interests Archer is the first hint that there may be a coherence….

"I was in trouble, and Lew Archer got me out of it," Macdonald wrote of his early career. Archer, a figure he could hide behind, rescued him from an autobiographical novel and "sloppy feelings and groping prose." The resulting work was "The Moving Target," published in 1949, and Archer has helped Macdonald to nineteen novels since then. A few years ago he seemed to have got Macdonald back into trouble, and "Sleeping Beauty" (1973) was full of sloppy feelings and groping prose, and Archer was offering...

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Until now I had never read a Ross Macdonald novel. My loss. For on the basis of The Blue Hammer alone—and there are 19 earlier Macdonald novels in the Lew Archer canon—this writer of cracking detective stories is as good as the more relentlessly "serious" American novelists of the declining years of our 20th century, and better than most. A snap judgment, perhaps, but that's what we're paid for.

And a shameful admission. For Ross Macdonald is as easy to read as he is hard to overlook….

It is [his] perfect blend of style and action that hooks the reader at once…. (p. G1)

[A] tantalizing possibility, hinting of further mysteries neither acted out nor directly revealed, gives Archer his dimension of flawed innocence. Macdonald once described him as "a deliberately narrowed version of the writing self, so narrow that when he turns sideways he almost disappears. Yet his semi-transparent presence places the story at one remove from the author and lets it, as we say (through sweat and tears), write itself."

And so it appears to do, with clarity and brilliance, a stunning use of dialogue and metaphor and, of course, an ingenious, constantly moving plot. The sweat and tears are left back on the office floor in Santa Barbara.

Archer's—and Macdonald's—venue is Southern California, the space between the Sierras and the sea where the past comes reluctantly to...

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Peter Wolfe

[Ross Macdonald's] novels are well-built, suspenseful, and easy both to read and enjoy. His best work gives equal weight to invention and execution. His intellectual power, social conscience, and bright, crisp style promote both impact and resonance. He has something to say, knows how to say it, and deserves to be heard. (p. 1)

A good example of his ability to write books that everybody can read inheres in his treatment of sex. He never denies the force of sex; sex always plays a large part in the troubled lives he depicts. But because erotic descriptions would cut the range of his readership, they never appear in his work. Nor does he let his preference for searching out criminal causes, rather than merely recording crime's sensations, outrank his sense of mission as a storyteller…. [He] translates motive into both physical and psychological act. In depicting the inner man, he does not forget the outer man—how he looks and what he does. He tells how characters have become the way they are; he reviews his main issues; he will remind you of the main currents of his sometimes highly complex plot. Though most thrillers start quickly, his set their own pace, adding characters and information when both reader and plot are ready for them.

Thus the novels give a great deal—action and credibility, sound plotting and something to think about: the meaning and the mechanism of crime. The crime points to serious issues. Almost all his work shows how far society at large, the family, and the individual have veered from what they should be. The idea is neither original nor profound. Ross Macdonald's strength lies not in idea but in his moral seriousness and power to convert idea into sharply observed and well-integrated details. He convinces us, through his artistry, of both the complexity and mystery of life. While persuading us that life is full of meaning, he does not define that meaning; rather, he invests detective fiction with a psychological dimension that fits well with its traditionally complex plot. More interested in private than in public crime, he uses psychology rather than applied science to probe motives and causes. This turning-away both from the gadgetry of the novel of international intrigue and the secular rationalism of the 'tec-yarn helps him reveal his characters through speech and action. (pp. 1-2)

Ross Macdonald does not analyze or explore motives. He shows, instead, the effects of deeply seated, sometimes obsessional, motives. Characters reveal themselves, if not at their worst, then at their most deeply surprised and tested. What will these nerve-raked souls do next? Who will be their next victims? Ross Macdonald conveys a sense of untold menace lurking behind the reported action. The bipolar pull of conscious and unconscious forces both energizes and controls the blend—the dark subject-matter of the novels resonating against a bright, limber style and Kenneth Millar's use of both a penname and a persona, in his narrator-detective Lew Archer. The tensional field of Ross Macdonald's art hums with imaginative possibilities. (p. 2)

Though Ross Macdonald links detection to psychology, he ignores criminal pathology. Crime in Ross Macdonald is usually murder; its motive, always personal and specific. Each book has only one killer, but he will kill three or four times. His motives? Gain and self-protection. Though the first victim dies because he stands between his murderer and something his murderer wants, the other ones die because they have incriminating information…. [The] killer cannot stop killing.

Ross Macdonald works harder to justify the motives of murder than to supply a conventional ending, where the murderer is caught after a setting-forth of the evidence. He cares about telling a good story because he cares about people—even killers and thieves…. Treating characters with respect, the Archer novels portray wrongdoers but, in recent years especially, no villains. Nobody chooses evil. Violence isn't simple; nor does it lend itself to moral absolutes…. (p. 3)

Ross Macdonald can be rightly accused of stretching probability past the breaking point and also of relying upon contrivances to resolve major issues. Examples to support the charge of implausibility come easily: Archer's habit of eavesdropping on conversations that just happen to deal directly with an important aspect of the case he's investigating; an identity-switch involving two women who look alike; the killing of the Most Likely Suspect soon after he rouses suspicion; the obligatory scene near the end where charges are made, evidence is brought forth, and the killer confesses….

These stratagems, or staples, while not fresh, are usually freshly perceived. What is more, they fit well with both Ross Macdonald's use of narrative form and his overall imaginative intent. Though he documents his settings realistically, Ross Macdonald is not a realist. (p. 4)

The novels magnify rather than imitate or copy. Highly compressed, they are metaphors for stress. The characters stand larger than life, and the crises that claw them would wreck most of us. According to Ross Macdonald, his novels do not break away from reality so much as give a poetic documentary…. Though living in the twilight of faith, Ross Macdonald's characters believe certain truths worth living and fighting—even, sometimes, worth killing—for. These truths are given in everyday experience. Nor are they described in night language, dream symbolism, or hallucination. Though the novels use the same filial-sexual materials as Joyce in the Circe ("Nighttown") section of Ulysses, Ross Macdonald writes objective narratives in straightforward prose. His style obeys the natural controls of conventional syntax and word choice. The inner world of his characters is intelligible. His plots, though full of strange meanings, are continuous. Without trivializing the complex process of causation, the plots transcribe bizarre events accurately.

But, crackling with ingenious twists and turns, they do not develop simply…. A relentless interior logic and a carefully regulated tempo controls the novels. At the same time, the energy building from their robust style, Archer's moral sympathy, and the mood of desperation cast by murder make them human dramas rather than technical diversions. Their strength stems chiefly from their dramatic force—an intensification of existence. Their gyrating plots mesh well with the larger-than-life impressions created by the characters and their crises. The abundance in each book imparts a sense of peopled space, even, in view of the pent-up energies driving the characters on, of overflowing life. The conjuction of Ross Macdonald's plots with the human drives impelling them also dramatizes today's leading concept, in psychology as well as in literature, of the city as maze. (p. 5)

Aesthetically, historically, and socially, Ross Macdonald belongs in the private-eye tradition of pulp crime fiction; early Archer is as much the hard-boiled dick as Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. (p. 6)

Ross Macdonald's other work adapts the novel of English village life to American social dynamics. Murder in Ross Macdonald is never ideological or crudely mercenary. The killer will come from the same social set, maybe the same family or street, as his victim and the other suspects.

Archer must find the connection between killer and victim(s). Both the openness and the mobility of America today make his job different from that of the English gentleman-sleuth of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham…. Although Archer's search for the connecting principle can take him twenty-five years into the past, once he finds it his case virtually solves itself…. (p. 7)

Like other good detective writers, [Ross Macdonald] distributes suspicion evenly among the suspects; he displays his clues clearly, so that the reader has the same chance as Archer to solve the mystery; he reasons from the clues. But most of these clues do not come from close study of the physical evidence…. Usually, he reasons a priori from psychological patterns. His clues are based on behavioral rather than material evidence. Any crime occurring during his investigations comes from an earlier one and may cause others later on…. Logical analysis helps Archer less than a generous heart and an imaginative grasp of the moral complexities of daily life….

Finding criminal impulses in all [people, Ross Macdonald] shortens the moral distance between murderer and victim, even between investigator and suspect; a popular murder-motive in his book is blackmail. Because we are all capable of crime, he extends both charity and moral sympathy to wrongdoers. This tenderness gives him more heart-knowledge than any of his counterparts today—not only in the area of the British detective story but also in that of the hard-boiled private eye, reaching all the way from Hammett to Mickey Spillane. (p. 8)

Evil does not win out in Ross Macdonald. The many last-chapter confessions, besides making for artistic symmetry, relax psychic strain. The killers feel relieved, first, to unload their guilt and shame and, next, to stop killing. Despite the greed and violence they describe, the Archer novels often taper to quiet, even peaceful, conclusions. Yet the fast-changing society the novels accept tallies well with the hard-boiled tradition, which is where most readers correctly place them. (pp. 8-9)

Ross Macdonald is one of America's few male novelists, let alone male crime writers, who use women as major characters. What interests him more than the hardiness of the Leatherstocking hero is the egalitarianism stretching from the eighteenth century to our day. The carrier of this tradition is spoken language. "Democracy is as much a language as it is a place," said Ross Macdonald in 1966. Archer's terse, middle-register speaking style confirms his freedom and equality. He communicates easily with witnesses, understanding them and being understood in turn. His street language subsumes both tower and gutter; down-and-outers and college deans come within his linguistic purview. A man who starts out knowing nothing and who knows only what people tell him, he has mastered, in his clear, straightforward speech, the basic working principle of his trade.

And so has his creator. Both the form and the build of a detective novel depend on the give-and-take of dialogue, the checking and rechecking of witnesses' stories, and the exchange of information among investigators. Thus Ross Macdonald writes in an oral, rather than in a literary, register. Fiction, he claims, should be written "more or less" in the rhythms and vocabulary of spoken language…. (p. 10)

Archer's ex parte role makes him more of a deus ex machina than a principal. Though his moral sympathy helps the later Archer cope with banality and grime, his accommodation is not tragic. He doesn't suffer enough and, by withholding both moral and emotional response, doesn't share any heightened perception with us…. Moreover, any literary form leaning as heavily as detective fiction does on dialogue comes under the aegis of social comedy…. Ross Macdonald excels in the skills that count most in social comedy—quicksilver dialogue, trim, inclusive plotting, and the creation of characters who need no reintroducing. The people and their problems range along the arc of comedy. Though Ross Macdonald looks deeply into character, he does not give many-sided pictures; the crimes energizing the plots call for a sharpening rather than a development of character. Character pre-exists Archer; instead of developing or changing, it struggles to survive. Variety comes from the range of character-types; each figure in a novel differs from all the others in age, job, and social-level. (pp. 13-14)

Ross Macdonald's sociological nightmares describe the pitfalls of new world energy. His characters don't understand freedom because they don't respect the freedom of others. Their freebooting individualism, a romantic perversion of the Protestant spirit, overrides secular, scriptural, and moral law. I feel, therefore, I am, is their guiding principle. What they feel most keenly, in Ross Macdonald's best work, is the loss of security; insecurity charges the novels with crisis. Characters deny the reality of both facts and persons; they twist, suppress, even kill. Violence becomes the natural outlet for insecurity; when force is the only social control, chaos, isolation, and despair follow soon after. (p. 16)

Psychology in Ross Macdonald, criminal or otherwise, does not reach us as applied doctrine…. Ross Macdonald uses Freud as an idea-bank. Much of the theory he bypasses as artistically unusable, unsuitable, or irrelevant. What he keeps he varies, even reverses, depending on his needs. Freud's influence, though strong, is implicit and absorbed. The novels do not read like psychoanalytic case studies, and Ross Macdonald does not explore character with the cold eye of the analyst. The hard purity of the doctrine is warmed and reshaped by the artist's imagination, moral charity, and sensitivity to the technical demands of his art. (pp. 21-2)

[Ross Macdonald's] belief in the inescapability of the past has led him to seat his characters in the family. The family, even if it encompasses only two generations, gives him access to one of the few surviving pasts in the instant society of California. This continuity generates force. The family is the greatest single influence on character in his fiction. (p. 23)

The moral equilibrium created by the past and the toil of solid literary craftsmanship weld the rich variety of the Archer novels. Little more can be asked of any novelist than that he control his deeply perceived and clearly realized materials. This strenuously achieved razor-balance of penetration and control, effortless look and all, has made Ross Macdonald an important novelist. (p. 36)

He has the Dickensian gusto—the stamina, curiosity, and genius for organization—both to create a megalopolis and to pull it together. For all its variety and sweep, California rides easily on the narrative rigging of the Archer books. The job of communicating with the reader claims equal rank with subject and idea—that which is being communicated. The bestowing of equal priority upon different narrative elements is, in fact, one of his leading aesthetic tenets…. Ross Macdonald's well-built books glow with bright interscenic commentary. We are never put into a room without knowing how we got there and what the room looks like. The room takes shape through well-observed details carefully chosen both for atmosphere and idea. The rundown frame shacks, the stucco ranch houses, and the elegant mansions Archer visits have the same authenticity. Often Ross Macdonald will insert a retrospective passage which reviews and summaries the plot for the reader's benefit. (pp. 36-7)

At the top of their form, [the Archer novels] vibrate with suspense, undertones, and classical inevitability. The success of most crime fiction depends on plot, and nobody builds a plot more ingeniously than Ross Macdonald…. Everything before [the conclusion] is so unforced that the resolution surprises us. The form of an Archer stays hidden until the novel is over….

The beauty of the narrative construction lies more in its process than in its conclusion. The inclusiveness of the dialectic—the many-sided plot and Archer's method of finding out and then using information—depicts the vitality of life. The cases move forward with the precision, gait, and confidence of Bleak House or a Simenon. They make us feel we are in the hands of a master; we may be tricked but not mocked. (p. 37)

[Ross Macdonald's] style has flaws and blemishes, some of which come from his use of stage, rather than narrative, techniques of plot-structure. These, built into the brickwork of the novels, could not be smoothed without a major dismantling. The novel is not a stage play; it uses different rhetorical conventions to generate a quite different illusion of life. The need for the detective to collect evidence from many different people crams most detective fiction with more dialogue than it can bear. Ross Macdonald, too, has a topheavy proportion of dialogue to narration. This imbalance squeezes the characters into the shrill, small spotlight of present time, a handicap offset in part by the presence of old letters, old photographs, and old people…. A flaw just as serious is that the characters sometimes talk like novelists. The too-sharp eye for detail, the encompassing summation, the measured speech—these all violate the realism of spoken language. (p. 44)

An aesthetic contribution … that reaches past the purview of detective fiction, is … [the use] of Archer as an "open narrator." The open narrator is a corollary of the continuing detective. He is easily recognizable and needs no reintroducing; since we know basically what to expect from him, we can watch his personality unfold in its own good time without growing anxious…. By adding to him in each book, Ross Macdonald keeps options alive; Archer reveals himself over many novels and remains fluid, besides. As with Anthony Powell's Nicholas Jenkins (A Dance to the Music of Time) and C. P. Snow's Lewis Eliot (Strangers and Brothers), a real self emerges from the Archer novels without dominating any single action. (p. 47)

A licensed private detective, [Archer] stands for authority, or the father. His reordering of time to the logic of detective-work enables him, first, to stop time and, supremely, to connect far-flung events; he becomes both the connecting principle and justicer in the lives of people he has only known for two or three days.

Some of Ross Macdonald's projections of him as God or man-God are … pointed. At different times, he is called altruist, do-gooder, Crusader, a zealot in his trade, even Mr. God. (pp. 47-8)

Archer's fate is that of all man-Gods. Though physically damaged, he stays spiritually whole; his...

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Newgate Callendar

[Macdonald's "Lew Archer, Private Investigator"] covers a 30-year span. It also has an introduction by the author, in which he makes the point that the American private eye "speaks for our common humanity" and demonstrates the shift from aristocracy (as represented by such investigators as Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey) to democracy. Macdonald enthusiasts will be rushing to get their hands on this book, and so should everyone else.

Newgate Callendar, "Crime: 'Lew Archer, Private Investigator'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 18, 1977, p. 25.

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