With the publication of The Underground Man in 1971, Ross Macdonald received unusual attention for a writer of detective fiction: a front-page review (by Eudora Welty) in The New York Times Book Review and a cover story in Newsweek. Twenty-two years after publishing his first Lew Archer novel (The Moving Target, 1949), Macdonald finally seemed to have achieved what he had been striving for through more than twenty books and many short stories: recognition as successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the hard-boiled school and acceptance as a serious novelist. His professional odyssey (including the metamorphosis of his name from Kenneth Millar originally to John Macdonald and then to John Ross Macdonald and finally to Ross Macdonald) was matched by a nomadic personal journey (from birth in California to upbringing in western Canada to college in Ontario, graduate study in Michigan, World War II naval service in the Pacific, and permanent residence in Southern California), and both odysseys are reflected in his characters’ identity crises and rootlessness.
All of this and the novels themselves are the subject of Matthew J. Bruccoli’s Ross Macdonald, the first in a series entitled HBJ Album Biographies, for which Bruccoli also serves as editor. Focusing upon modern American authors, the series aims to provide brief studies that are extensively illustrated. The Macdonald volume, presumably typical, has forty-one pages of pictures and seventy-eight of text (exclusive of those devoted to an appendix, notes, and a bibliography). Necessarily, then, the attention paid to each novel is scanter than the extensive analyses in Peter Wolfe’s Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald’s Novels (1976) and Jerry Speir’s Ross Macdonald (1978). Bruccoli, in fact, gives short shrift to most of the novels—briefly summarizing plots (for some), identifying themes, quoting from reviews—and seems to be more interested in publishing histories and sales figures than in the substance of the books. This, then, is not a work for the serious student of literature, who should go to Wolfe or Speir. It will be useful, though, for Macdonald buffs, who will find here a good overview of the author’s life and career as well as lucid capsule judgments of the novels.
As a first step toward a Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald biography, Bruccoli’s effort also merits attention, because he had access to Macdonald material at the University of California, Irvine, and consulted manuscript collections elsewhere. Margaret Millar, Macdonald’s widow and herself a prizewinning mystery writer, also apparently cooperated. The result is a biographical sketch that is informative about many aspects of Macdonald’s early life, including his emergence as a writer of detective fiction and his attempts to be recognized as a serious novelist. For insights into the early life and career, however, Macdonald’s own eight-page introduction to Bruccoli’s Kenneth Millar/Ross Macdonald: A Checklist (1971) is more revealing, while Macdonald’s eminently readable pieces in the 1973 On Crime Writing, “The Writer as Detective Hero” and “Writing the Galton Case,” are preferable to Bruccoli’s exposition of the influences on Macdonald, his writing methods, and the conception of Lew Archer.
In his fourth novel, The Three Roads (1948), Macdonald introduced the quest motif, the California locale, the “pastness of the present” idea, and the Oedipal theme, all of which were to become omnipresent in his subsequent novels. Not until The Moving Target, a year later, however, did he introduce Lew Archer as his private eye and narrator. (Archer was to star in seventeen more novels and two collections of stories.) Bruccoli calls The Moving Target Macdonald’s “first breakthrough novel,” primarily because of Archer, who functions for the first time as a necessary “distancing character” providing a “layer of insulation between writer and material” and causing “things to happen and extend[ing] the web of causality.” (This also was the first Millar novel published under a pseudonym and the only time he used “John Macdonald.”) While Bruccoli does refer to Archer’s mythical links and connections with such predecessors as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, he does not develop them adequately nor does he elucidate Archer’s singular qualities to the...
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