Authors: Ross Macdonald

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Dark Tunnel, 1944 (as Kenneth Millar; pb. in Britain as I Die Slowly, 1955)

Trouble Follows Me, 1946 (as Millar; pb. in Britain as Night Train, 1955)

Blue City, 1947 (as Millar)

The Three Roads, 1948 (as Millar)

The Moving Target, 1949 (as John Macdonald; reissued as Harper, 1966)

The Drowning Pool, 1950 (as John Ross Macdonald)

The Way Some People Die, 1951 (as John Ross Macdonald)

The Ivory Grin, 1952 (as John Ross Macdonald; reissued as Marked for Murder, 1953)

Meet Me at the Morgue, 1953 (as John Ross Macdonald; pb. in Britain as Experience with Evil, 1954)

Find a Victim, 1954 (as John Ross Macdonald)

The Barbarous Coast, 1956

The Doomsters, 1958

The Galton Case, 1959

The Ferguson Affair, 1960

The Wycherly Woman, 1961

The Zebra-Striped Hearse, 1962

The Chill, 1964

The Far Side of the Dollar, 1965

Black Money, 1966

The Instant Enemy, 1968

The Goodbye Look, 1969

The Underground Man, 1971

Sleeping Beauty, 1973

The Blue Hammer, 1976

Short Fiction:

The Name Is Archer, 1955 (as John Ross Macdonald)

Lew Archer, Private Investigator, 1977

Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries, 2001 (Tom Nolan, editor)


On Crime Writing, 1973

Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly into the Past, 1981


Ross Macdonald was recognized early in his career to be the successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the field of realistic crime fiction, and his detective, Lew Archer, to be the successor to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Macdonald is generally credited with raising the detective novel to the level of serious literature.{$I[AN]9810001058}{$I[A]Macdonald, Ross}{$S[A]Millar, Kenneth;Macdonald, Ross}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Macdonald, Ross}{$I[tim]1915;Macdonald, Ross}

Ross Macdonald

(Hal Boucher)

Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California, on December 13, 1915. His family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, soon after he was born, and he was reared and educated in Canada, graduating with honors from the University of Western Ontario in 1938. He returned to the United States permanently in 1941, when he began graduate work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, receiving his M.A. in English in 1943. He served in the Pacific during World War II before returning to the University of Michigan to earn his Ph.D. in English. By this time he was already a published novelist, having published his earliest works as Kenneth Millar or as John Ross Macdonald, but he settled on the pseudonym Ross Macdonald by the time of the writing of The Barbarous Coast (1956) to avoid being confused with two other famous mystery writers: his wife, Margaret Millar, whom he had married in 1938, and John D. MacDonald.

The novels fall into three groups: Those in which Lew Archer does not appear form a distinct group, and the Archer series itself may be separated into two periods. Macdonald’s first four books, together with two later works, Meet Me at the Morgue and The Ferguson Affair, do not feature Lew Archer. These are all fairly typical treatments of wartime espionage or political corruption and are primarily of interest only to the extent that they prefigure the concerns of later works. The Three Roads, for example, is Macdonald’s first use of the Oedipus myth as a plot structure and of California as a setting. The first six Archer books (The Moving Target, The Drowning Pool, The Way Some People Die, The Ivory Grin, Find a Victim, and The Name is Archer) introduce and refine the character of Archer, build the society and geography of California into important thematic elements, and feature increasingly complex plots.

The next thirteen Archer books constitute Macdonald’s major achievement. Crimes in these books are not usually committed by professional criminals but rather by middle-class people going through emotional crises. These novels followed a period of personal crisis in Macdonald’s own life, during which he underwent psychotherapy, and all of them deal more or less explicitly with psychological issues. The Doomsters, although begun before his psychoanalysis, presents his first extended treatment of the types of intrafamilial relations that dominate all the later books. The novel features two particularly important thematic elements: an Oedipal struggle between father and son, a motif that often serves as the mainspring of the action in the later novels, and a female murderer, also a frequent ingredient in the later novels. The latter is an expression of Macdonald’s convictions that people who have been victims tend to victimize others in turn and that American society systematically victimizes women.

While the focus on family psychology constitutes a clean break with the Hammett and Chandler school of hard-boiled detective fiction as well as with most of his own early work, the next Archer novel, The Galton Case, is of even greater importance to Macdonald’s development. In The Doomsters, the case is rooted in a crime committed three years earlier; in The Galton Case, as in most of the novels to follow, the present crime is rooted deeper in the past, in the preceding generation, giving Macdonald the means of showing the long-term effects of the influence of the family upon each of its members. This work also foregrounds the theme of the son searching for his father, a theme that would recur in later works such as The Far Side of the Dollar, The Instant Enemy, The Goodbye Look, The Underground Man, and The Blue Hammer. As Macdonald explains in his 1973 essay “Writing The Galton Case,” this plot is roughly shaped on his own life, his father having left him and his mother when he was three years old. This transformation of family history into fiction seems to have enabled the breakthrough that led Macdonald to write the rest of his novels about varying permutations of the relations between parents and children, including relationships between father and daughter (The Zebra-Striped Hearse) and mother and son (The Chill). Other works combine these Freudian themes with elements adapted from classical mythology or the Bible.

Macdonald’s work, in terms of quantity as well as quality, represents an unparalleled achievement in the detective genre. The novels, particularly the nineteen that feature Lew Archer, form a remarkably coherent body of work both stylistically and thematically. The last twelve Archer books have received especially high critical as well as popular acclaim, several becoming national best-sellers, and have secured Macdonald’s standing as the author of the finest series of detective novels ever written, perhaps the only such series to have bridged the gap between popular and serious literature.

BibliographyBruccoli, 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. Includes bibliographical references.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. Includes bibliographical references.Nolan, Tom. Ross Macdonald: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 1999. The first full-length biography of Macdonald. Discusses the origins of the novels and critical responses to them.Schopen, Bernard A. Ross Macdonald. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A sound introductory study, with a chapter on Macdonald’s biography (“The Myth of One’s Life”), on his handling of genre, his development of the Lew Archer character, his mastery of the form of the detective novel, and the maturation of his art culminating in The Underground Man. Provides detailed notes and an annotated bibliography.Sipper, Ralph B., ed. Ross Macdonald: Inward Journey. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Cordelia Editions, 1984. This collection of twenty-seven articles includes two by Macdonald, one a transcription of a speech about mystery fiction and the other a letter to a publisher which discusses Raymond Chandler’s work in relation to his own. Contains photographs and notes on contributors.Skinner, Robert E. The Hard-Boiled Explicator: A Guide to the Study of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1985. An indispensable volume for the scholar interested in tracking down unpublished dissertations as well as mainstream criticism. Includes brief introductions to each author, followed by annotated bibliographies of books, articles, and reviews.South Dakota Review 24 (Spring, 1986). This special issue devoted to Macdonald, including eight articles, an editor’s note, photographs, and notes, is a valuable source of criticism.Speir, Jerry. Ross Macdonald. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. Serves as a good introduction to Macdonald’s work, with a brief biography and a discussion of the individual novels. Includes chapters on his character Lew Archer, on alienation and other themes, on Macdonald’s style, and on the scholarly criticism available at the time. Contains a bibliography, notes, and an index.Wolfe, Peter. Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald’s Novels. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1976. This detailed study contains extensive discussions of the novels and a consideration of the ways in which Macdonald’s life influenced his writing. Includes notes.
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