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Ross Macdonald (1915-1983) - Pseudonym for Kenneth Millar


One of the few mystery writers also regarded as a major American novelist. Ross Macdonald was frequently characterized as the successor to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. After writing four novels under his real name, Kenneth Millar, Macdonald turned out his first private-eye novel in 1949. He published the book under the name John Macdonald so as to avoid confusion with his wife, Margaret Millar, who was writing mysteries under her own name. Later he changed his name to John Ross Macdonald to avoid confusion with John D. MacDonald. Finally he dropped the first name, and was known as Ross Macdonald.

"Though Archer defines himself as a Natty Bumpo, "a great tracker" (The Zebra-Striped Hearse), he seems less interested in trapping than understanding his quarry. His constant speculations, sometimes self-contradictory within a single book, on coincidence, fate, and the causes of crime reveal the depth of his intelligence, whatever its source in experience or book learning. His frequent awakening by early morning birds attests to harmony with the natural cycle that almost balances the horrors he witnesses." (Burton Kendle in 'Lew Archer as Culture Maven,' The Big Book of Noir, ed. by Ed Gorman et al., 1998)

Ross Macdonald's famous private detective is Lew Archer, name having been lifted from Dashiell Hammett's novel Maltese Falcon (detective Miles Archer) according to some sources; but from his sign of the zodiac, Sagittarius, according to the author. Archer is a low-key figure who observes the action from sidelines. He was the protagonist of eighteen novels and a handful of short stories. Lew Archer was born on June 2, 1914 (in some sources 1913). In The Galton Case (1959) Archer says he played high school football. He was a Long Beach detective sergeant, and during World War II he worked in the intelligence and fought on Okinawa. Archer is divorced. Until 1969, he avoided involvement with women he met on cases, but in The Blue Hammer (1976), where Archer was in his sixties, he was ready for a long term relationship. Archer's interests include Japanese art, good books, classical music, and nature. Lives in Los Angeles and he hates its smog. His cases takes him frequently to Santa Teresa. - Millar's other series character, Chet Gordon, appeared in novels The Dark Tunnel (1944), based on Millar's travels in Nazi Germany, Trouble Follows Me (1946), Blue City (1947), and The Three Roads (1948).

Kenneth Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, the son of an itinerant newspaper editor. He was brought to his parents' native Canada as young child, and raised there by his mother, Annie Millar, after his father, John Macdonald Millar, left the family without warning. Millar's mother had worked previously as a nurse, but due to typhoid fever she could not take care alone of her son, and moved with him from one relative to another. For some time he lived with his aunt in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Poverty and awareness of class distinctions after the breakup of his parents' marriage marked Millar's early years and he returned to his depressing childhood in later works: "But every air-conditioned ranchhouse with its swimming pool and private landing strip, there are dozens of tin-sided shacks and broken down trailers where the lost tribes of the migrant workers live." (from The Wycherly Woman, 1961)

While studying in the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School Millar found the works of Dostoyevsky, Coleridge and Wilkie Collins. After graduating he worked for a year on a farm. His father died in 1932 and left him a $2,500 insurance policy, which enabled him to continue his studies. In 1933 he entered the University of Western Ontario. His mother died in 1935 and Millar spent during a year in Europe. In 1938 he married Margaret Sturm, who as Margaret Millar would start career as an acclaimed mystery writer.

Between 1938 and 1939 Millar studied at the University of Toronto, and continued his studies at the University of Michigan, where he was also a teacher. W.H. Auden, who was there at that time a visiting professor, encouraged him to regard detective novels as a legitimate literary form. From 1944 to 1946 Millar served as a communications officer in the United States Naval Reserve in the Pacific, aboard the escort carrier Shipley Bay. He earned his Ph.D. in 1951, with a dissertation on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Millar's first novel was The Dark Tunnel. The first Lew Archer story was The Moving Target (1949), which received a lukewarm reception from his hardback publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. It was followed by several other novels, and two short story collections depicting Philip Marlowe-inspired private eye, whose last appearance occurs in The Blue Hammer.

The first half-dozen books in the series were written in the postwar tradition of private eye stories. This was emphasized in some of the hard-boiled jacket copies: "... Lew Archer, private detective in the land of dream-California; in the land of peaches and honey, misery and murder-male and female! The name is Archer and don't get me wrong - It's not that women are greedier than men..." (from The Name is Archer, Bantam Books, 1955, artist: Mitchell Hooks) However, actually Archer was a nonviolent, liberal-hum anist detective and even the murderer in the first Archer novel quotes Kierkegaard. Millar rejected Chandler's conventional antagonism between good and evil and condemned Spillane's "down the drain" prose. "My subject is human error," Millar wrote to his publisher in the early 1950s.

In 1956 Millar moved with his family to San Francisco area for a year. "... people suffered in California just as they did in other places - suffered little more, perhaps, because they didn't get much sympathy from the weather." He underwent in Menlo Park a period of psychotherapy, which helped him to find his own approach to the popular genre. The Galton Case reflected this new phase with its Freudian overtones. In the novel Archer is hired by an elderly woman to find her son, Anthony Galton. He has disappeared twenty-three years before. When Archer examines the family's troubled past, the story begins to take themes from the Oedipus legend. In the subsequent novels people often commit a crime because of events in their family history. Archer's method of uncovering family skeletons has much similarities with psychoanalysis, although he has much troubles in collecting merely the facts. Answers are found within the relationship between parents and children and hidden family problems.

The formula, where Archer reveals past crimes reflecting Greek tragedies or have Biblical allusions, become Macdonald's trade mark. In this process Archer is not taking the role of tough private eye, but he helps his clients to deeper self-knowledge. He is neutral - the really interesting people are his clients and other characters. And often Archer's clients hide crucial information about their past. Archer is no Freud, who interpreters human behavior, painful experiences, mainly inside a sexual framework. Besides sex, money and power explain motifs behind crimes.

Wealth corrupts and poverty has a destructive effect on Millar's characters, who have high hopes and pursuit the American dream. In later books Archer constantly helped troubled young people, lost sons and daughters, but his main concern was his own generation. Sea and water are recurring images and can suggest hidden secrets under the surface. "The sea was cold and dangerous. It held dead men." In Sleeping Beauty(1973) a leaking offshore oil platform reveals irresponsibility in the business world and in the personal level. Laurel Russo, the granddaughter of the founder of the oil company, is though to be a memorial to Millar's daughter, Linda, his one and only child, who died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of thirty-one. In 1956 she had been committed to the State Hospital at Camarillo, after she was involved in a hit-and-run vehicular homicide. Her eleven-day disappearance in 1959 caused Millar to be hospitalized and treated for hypertension.

Millar became with his wife active in environmental causes in the 1960s and wrote articles on the subject for Sports Illustrated and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1969 he helped to lead protests following a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. His close friends included the author and enviromentalist Robert Easton. They joined forces to protect the endangered California condor and founded the Santa Barbara Citizens for Environmental Defense. Millar wrote the introduction to Easton's Black Tide: The Santa Barbara Oil Spill and Its Consequences (1972).

In The Chill (1964), which was awarded the Silver Dagger by the Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain, Archer is engaged to trace a missing spouse, Dolly, who has run away from Alex Kincaid after their marriage. The problems of the newlyweds are mixed with a trail of a murder. Fredrick Kincaid, Alex's father, tries to deny his responsibility and have the marriage annulled, but Archer tells him: "The girl's in trouble, and whether you like it or not she's a member of your family." Buried memories and anguished relations between parents and children are dealt in such novels as The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), and The Underground Man (1971), in which Archer thinks: "I hoped that Ronny's life wouldn't turn back toward his father's death as his father's life had turned, in a narrowing circle. I wished the boy a benign failure of memory".

Archer has been played by Paul Newman in two films Harper (1966), based on first Archer novel and updated in the 1960s, and The Drowning Pool (1975), from the 1950 novel. In Harper, scripted by William Goldman, Humphrey Bogart's former wife Lauren Bacall played opposite Newman. When Bacall asks Harper, "Like a drink?" the answer is, "Not before lunch" – he is a new type of a detective. Newman later claimed he modelled his character on Robert F. Kennedy. Brian Keith played Archer in NBC television series in 1975. Peter Graves was Archer in its pilot movie, The Underground Man (1974).

Millar's books have been bestsellers in hardcovers. The author was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. William Goldman has called Archer books "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American" in his review of The Goodbye Look in New York Times Book Review. MacDonald was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1973. He wrote a study of crime writing (1973), and an autobiography under the title Self-Portrait (1981). Kenneth Millar's collected reviews from San Francisco Chronicle and from other magazines and newspapers appeared in 1980. He died of Alzheimers in Santa Barbara on July 11, 1983.

For further reading: Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams by Peter Wolfe (1976); Ross Macdonald by Jerry Speir (1978); Kenneth Millar / Ross Macdonald: A Descriptive Bibliography by Matthew J. Bruccoli (1983); Ross Macdonald / Kenneth Millar by Mathew J. Bruccoli (1984); The American Private Eye by David Geherin (1985); Long Way from Solving That One by Jeffrey Howard Mahan (1990); Hard-Boiled Heretic: The Lew Archer Novels of Ross Macdonald by Mary S. Weinkauf (1994); Mystery and Suspense Writers, vol. 2, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan (1999); A Ross Macdonald Companion by Robert L. Gale (2002); The Novels Of Ross Macdonald by Michael Kreyling (2005)

Selected Lew Archer novels:

  • The Dark Tunnel, 1944 (as Kenneth Millar)
  • Trouble Follows Me, 1946 (as Kenneth Millar)
  • Blue City, 1947 (as Kenneth Millar)
    - Blue city: likainen kaupunki (translated into Finnish by Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 2009)
    - film 1986, dir. by
    Michelle Manning, starring Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, David Caruso, Paul Winfield.
  • The Three Roads, 1948 (as Kenneth Millar)
    - Valheen pitkät jäljet (suom. Tarmo Haarala, 2001)
    - film 1980 (Double Negative), dir. by George Bloomfield, starring Michael Sarrazin, Susan Clark, Anthony Perkins.
  • The Moving Target, 1949 (as Harper, 1951)
    - Liikkuva maali (suom. Veijo Laurila, 1972)
    - film 1966 (Harper), dir. by Jack Smight, script by William Goldman, starring Paul Newman and Lauren Bacall. "A vulnerable man, first seen under the credits in an effective bit of character-setting re-using last night's coffee grounds for breakfast, Newman's Harper ends the movie with a resignated shrug." (The BFI Companion to Crime, ed. by Phil Hardy, 1997)
  • The Drowning Pool, 1950
    - Kasvot vedessä (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1994)
    - film 1975, dir. by Stuart Rosenberg, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. "All the clichés of cheapjack TV private eye capers have been added to MacDonald's book; whatever separates him from the paperback hacks has been deleted." (Judith Crist)
  • The Way Some People Die, 1951
    - Kumma tapa kuolla (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1995)
  • The Ivory Grin, 1952 (as Marked for Murder, 1953)
    - Huuleton hymy (suom. Petteri Suvanto, 1975)
  • Meet Me at the Morgue, 1953 (as Experience with Evil)
    - Tavataan ruumishuonella (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1997)
  • Find a Victim, 1954
    - Etsi uhrisi (suom. Jyrki Lindström, 1973)
  • The Name is Archer, 1955
    - Nimi on Archer (suom. Renne Nikupaavola, 1998)
  • The Barbarous Coast, 1956
    - Barbaarirannikko (suom. Tapio Hiisivaara, 1961)
  • The Doomsters, 1958
    - Tuomitsijat (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1996)
  • The Galton Case, 1959
    - Rouva Galtonin perillinen (suom. Esko Hamilo, 1981)
  • The Ferguson Affair, 1960
    - Fergusonin tapaus (suomentanut Heikki Kaskimies, 2000)
  • The Wycherly Woman, 1961
    - Rikas tyttöparka (suom. Erkki Jukarinen, 1980)
  • TThe Zebra-Striped Hearse, 1962
    - Harriet on iso tyttö (suom. Risto Ahti, 1968)
  • The Chill, 1964
    - Tappotuomio (suom. Esko Hamilo, 1985)
  • The Far Side of the Dollar, 1965
    - Dollarin nurja puoli (suom. Eero Raassina, 1967; Jukka Kemppinen, 1979)
  • Black Money, 1966
    - Pimeää rahaa (suom. Risto Lehmusoksa, 1968)
  • Archer in Hollywood, 1967 (collection)
  • The Instant Enemy, 1968
    - Hyvää käteistä rahaa (suom. Petteri Suvanto, 1976)
  • The Goodbye Look, 1969
    - Jäähyväiskatse (suom. Kalevi Tammisto, 1972)
  • Archer at Large, 1970 (collection)
  • The Underground Man, 1971
    - Takapiru (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1972)
    - TV film 1974, dir. by Paul Wendkos, starring Peter Graves.
  • On Crime Writing, 1973
  • Sleeping Beauty, 1973
    - Nukkuva kaunotar (suom. Risto Lindström, 1974)
  • Great Stories of Suspense, 1974 (ed.)
  • The Blue Hammer, 1976
    - Sininen syke (suom. Erkki Hakala, 1977)
  • Lew Archer Private Investigator, 1977 (collection)
  • Ross Macdonald: A Collection of Reviews, 1979
  • Archer in Jeopardy, 1979 (collection)
  • Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past, 1981
  • Early Millar, 1982 (with Margaret Millar)
  • The Lew Archer Omnibus. Vol. 1, 1993
  • The Lew Archer Omnibus. Vol. 2, 1994
  • The Lew Archer Omnibus. Vol. 3., 1997
  • Strangers in Town, 2001 (ed. Tom Nolan)
  • The Archer Files, 2007 (ed. Tom Nolan)

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