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.)
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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[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...
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[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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