Ross Macdonald

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Macdonald, Ross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Macdonald, Ross 1915–

Pseudonym of Kenneth Millar. An American detective story writer and creator of Lew Archer, Macdonald is the author of many novels, including The Goodbye Look and The Underground Man, and, most recently, Sleeping Beauty. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

A few years ago Ross Macdonald wrote a series of stunning psychodramas that still remain generally neglected: The Galton Case, The Wycherly Woman, The Zebra-Striped Hearse. But subsequent books fell into repetition of these successes, and now the latest, Black Money, sets out to do something different. It begins—and few writers create the sense of starting out as well as Ross Macdonald—with what seems a standard tale about the way underworld money corrupts the respectably wealthy, and proceeds to show how Lew Archer, Ross Macdonald's private detective, wrongly assumes, as if because he watched too much television, that when you find the underworld king you solve the case. Archer has the rug neatly pulled out from under him—the solved case leaves everything unsolved—but then, author and hero, sadly, have nothing left except shreds of a wornout tangle and some not very clearly articulated anti-academic biases. Someone coming to Ross Macdonald first via Black Money, then, has every right to feel he is only another private eye novelist. But those who know this curiously modest and pretentious writer can still invoke his entire career and say he may be started on something new.

Roger Sale, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1966, pp. 127-28.

The plot [of "The Underground Man"] is intricate, involuted, and complicated to the hilt; and this, as I see it, is the novel's point. The danger derives from the fairy tales into which people make their lives. In lonely, fearful, or confused minds, real-life facts can become rarefied into private fantasies. And when intensity is accepted—welcomed—as the measure of truth, how can the real and the fabricated be told apart?…

[It] is the character of [Lew] Archer, whose first-person narrative forms all Mr. Macdonald's novels, that makes [the case] matter to us. Archer from the start has been a distinguished creation; he was always an attractive figure and in the course of the last several books has matured and deepened in substance to our still greater pleasure. Possessed even when young of an endless backlog of stored information, most of it sad, on human nature, he tended once, unless I'm mistaken, to be a bit cynical. Now he is something much more, he is vulnerable. As a detective and as a man he takes the human situation with full seriousness. He cares. And good and evil both are real to him.

Archer knows himself to be a romantic, would call it a weakness—as he calls himself a "not unwilling catalyst" for trouble; he carries the knowledge around with him—that's how he got here. But he is in no way archaic. He is at heart a champion, but a self-questioning, often a self-deriding champion. He is of today, one of ours. "The Underground Man" is written so close to the nerve of today as to expose most of the apprehensions we live with.

In our day it is for such a novel as "The Underground Man" that the detective form exists. I think it also matters that it is the detective form, with all its difficult demands and its corresponding charms, that makes such a novel possible. What gives me special satisfaction about this novel is that no one but a good writer—this good writer—could have possibly brought it off. "The Underground Man" is Mr. Macdonald's best book yet, I think. It is not only exhilaratingly well done; it is also very moving.

Ross Macdonald's style, to which in large part this is due, is one of delicacy and tension, very tightly made, with a spring in it. It doesn't allow a static sentence or one without pertinence. And the spare, controlled narrative, built for action and speed, conveys as well the world through which the action moves and gives it meaning, brings scene and character, however swiftly,...

(The entire section is 2,172 words.)