Ross Macdonald Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How does Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer differ from Dashiell Hammett’s Philip Marlowe?

How does Lew Archer change or develop over Macdonald’s writing years?

Which Macdonald novels best exemplify his environmental concerns?

What makes Santa Barbara an effective locale for Macdonald’s fictional purposes?

How does Macdonald reconcile the claims of the genres of tragedy and detective fiction?

Is The Underground Man an apt title for Macdonald’s novel? Does he meet the challenge imposed by its implicit reference to Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ross Macdonald’s reputation is based primarily on his twenty-four published novels, particularly on the eighteen that feature private detective Lew Archer. He also published a collection of short stories, Lew Archer, Private Investigator (1977), which includes all the stories from an earlier collection, The Name Is Archer(1955). Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past (1981) gathers a selection of his essays, interviews, and lectures about his own work and about other writers, including two essays first published in his On Crime Writing (1973). The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator (2007) collects all the brief Archer fiction, including never-before-published pieces that remained unfinished by Macdonald. Macdonald also wrote dozens of book reviews and several articles on conservation and politics.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ross Macdonald was recognized early in his career as the successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the field of realistic crime fiction, and his detective, Lew Archer, was recognized as the successor to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Macdonald’s advance over his predecessors was in the greater emphasis he placed on psychology and character, creating a more humane and complex detective and more intricate plotting. He is generally credited with raising the detective novel to the level of serious literature. The Mystery Writers of America awarded him Edgar Allan Poe scrolls in 1962 and 1963. In 1964, The Chill was awarded the Silver Dagger by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. The same organization gave his next novel, The Far Side of the Dollar, the Golden Dagger as the best crime novel of the year.

Macdonald served as president of the Mystery Writers of America in 1965 and was made a Grand Master of that organization in 1974. In a review of The Goodbye Look in The New York Times Book Review, William Goldman called the Lew Archer books “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” His work has gained popular as well as critical acclaim: The Goodbye Look, The Underground Man, Sleeping Beauty, and The Blue Hammer were all national best sellers. Three of his books have been made into successful motion pictures, two starring Paul Newman as Lew Archer: The Moving Target, which was made into the film Harper (1966), and the film version of The Drowning Pool, which was released in 1975. The Three Roads was adapted into the film Double Negative (1980).


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ross Macdonald’s eighteen novels featuring Lew Archer, the compassionate private eye who serves as their narrator and central intelligence, have been described as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” Working in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, masters of the hard-boiled detective novel, Macdonald surpassed them in craftsmanship and psychological depth. He saw in popular fiction the promise of “democratic prose,” fashioned from the American vernacular. His language is economical, deceptively simple, capable of poetry. For the most part, his characters are ordinary people, neither heroes nor villains, rendered with full justice to the moral complexity of their experience. His books are also a composite portrait of a particular place and its society; few novelists, whether inside or outside the mystery genre, have achieved the accuracy, the social range, and the insight of Macdonald’s anatomy of California.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Richard Layman. Hardboiled Mystery Writers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2002. A handy supplemental reference that includes interviews, letters, and previously published studies. Illustrated.

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Ross Macdonald. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Describes the development of Macdonald’s popular reputation as a prolific author of detective fiction and his critical reputation as a writer of literary merit. Includes illustrations, an appendix with an abstract of his Ph.D. thesis, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Gale, Robert. A Ross Macdonald Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. A Macdonald reference work, including listings of works, characters, family members, and professional acquaintances, as well as a select bibliography.

Kreyling, Michael. The Novels of Ross Macdonald. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. An in-depth examination of Macdonald’s eighteen detective novels.

Mahan, Jeffrey H. A Long Way from Solving That One: Psycho/Social and Ethical Implications of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer Tales. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990. Explores the Archer stories and their importance in the detective-fiction canon....

(The entire section is 555 words.)