Kenneth Millar, better known under his pen name of Ross Macdonald, is largely recognised for scaling new heights in crime novel writing in the middle of the last century because of his finesse in handling the genre.
Born in California in 1915, but raised in Canada, he began writing in 1939 after being inspired by the success of his wife, Margaret Sturm, the mystery writer who wrote under the name of Margaret Millar.
They lived in Santa Barbara, California, for the remainder of their lives, and it became the setting for his Lew Archer character, a divorced former cop-turned private eye, in post-war Los Angeles.
Archer displayed all the traits of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a wisecracking PI crusading against the bad and the ugly, but in a later era. In fact, so inspired by Hammett, he took the name for his protagonist from Spade’s murdered partner Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.
Even the themes were familiar as he wrote about the idle rich, bad marriages and dysfunctional offspring. But for the author, who’d gained a PhD in literature, his real ambition was to become one day a serious writer under his own name.
And yet, ironically, he fulfilled his dream under his nom de plume with literary critics hailing him for blending a “whodunit” with a psychological thriller with such great aplomb.
Macdonald began to surpass his two famous predecessors when his hardboiled thrillers gave way to a retelling of Greek myths based on a modern Californian narrative about family secrets, childhood traumas and skeletons in the cupboard. He once told Newsweek that he owed this transformation in his work to seeing a therapist, claiming that Freud was an important influence on his newfound voice. Turning tragedies of ordinary life into potboilers became his signature theme.
Though the early Archer series were well written, including his first, The Moving Target (1949), it wasn’t until after his epiphany on the psychiatrist couch, when he wrote The Galton Case (1959), that he came into his own, writing about his personal life experiences. Archer becomes the conduit in piecing together the story of lives of others. While some critics complained that from that moment onwards he ended up reworking and rewriting the same novel, others claim that he was clever enough to keep unearthing something new in every version. It would be another 10 years with the publication of The Goodbye Look that he was finally rewarded with the critical accolades he’d craved for when starting out as a serious writer.
Many have written about the Holy Trinity of American crime writers of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald, but it was the latter who became the most academically respected. He also wrote more books than Hammett and Chandler combined with the Archer series totalling 18. Although Hammett created the PI genre, and Chandler perfected it, Macdonald pushed the crime novel into new directions.
Like Hammett and Chandler, he had critical success also in Hollywood with Paul Newman starring in both Harper (1966), based on The Moving Target, and later The Drowning Pool (1975).
Chandler didn’t take to the newcomer and described his prose as strained and pretentious. The feeling may have been mutual as Macdonald thought Chandler’s work lacked “tragic unity”. As a Dashiell Hammett fan, I could not comment. Hammett’s writing is pure and economical, while Chandler cuts clean and creates scenes that remain in a reader’s memory forever. Macdonald is silky and true to the traditions of Hammett and Chandler. In fact, he gave a new lease of life to the genre, just as his predecessors had done in their respective periods.
Was it such a coincidence that Hammett’s first PI novel hit the bookshelves in 1929, Chandler’s in 1939 and Macdonald’s in 1949? Was it not the sharp eye of the same publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, recognising what readers wanted from each author and shrewdly nudging the genre along in keeping with the time?
Macdonald’s books are written so elegantly that he was admired by poets as his stories were from the heart, and to describe him as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime writers would not be an overstatement as Fitzgerald was an author that had greatly inspired him.
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