Ross Macdonald takes hard-boiled fiction to new levels of style and plot

January 18, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, Private eye, writers, writing.

Just when the reading world thought that the hard-boiled detective novel had reached its zenith with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, along comes Ross Macdonald.

Ross Macdonald

The similarities among the lives of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) are striking and significant:

  • All had difficult and disruptive childhoods.
  • Each, for a time, received a good-to-excellent education.
  • Chandler and Macdonald spent a significant part of their childhoods outside the United States.
  • Stability eluded them as young adults.
  • Hammett had been a detective, working under one of the best detectives in the business. He wrote about what he knew. Chandler read Hammett and determined that he could expand the concept of the private eye. Macdonald read both Hammett and Chandler and believed he could build on their contributions and add to them.
  • All three writers had turbulent adult lives even after they had become famous and wealthy.

Ross Macdonald created a private eye named Lew Archer. The surname is taken from Miles Archer, the dead partner of Hammett’s Sam Spade, but Macdonald said the model for the character came from Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe.

Both Chandler and Macdonald took hard-boiled fiction beyond the spare and terse style of Hammett. Macdonald was every bit Chandler’s equal in the use of elegant description and multi-level metaphors and similes.

For instance:

  • She appeared at his shoulder and leaned on him, waiting for somebody to second here self-administered flattery.
  • Her body was very assertive in shorts and a halter.
  •  . . . hair stuck up on her head like a yellow fright wig.
  • . . . her eyes were the color of gin.

All those examples come from just one paragraph is the book, The Chill (1964).

Like Chandler did with Phillip Marlowe, Macdonald imbued Archer with psychological dimensions and a social consciousness that went beyond anything that readers of hard-boiled detective fiction had experienced before. In addition, Macdonald wove complex plots that were dramatic and wrenching. Then he would resolve them in ways that were often surprising and enlightening.

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Both Macdonald and his wife Margaret Millar had achieved some success as novels before Macdonald moved into the hard-boiled genre. Macdonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, was published in 1949 and would later be made into the movie Harper, starring Paul Newman. (Archer actually appeared first in a 1946 short story, “Find the Woman.”) Macdonald would go on to write 17 more Lew Archer novels before his death in 1983. Each novel received good reviews and often moved critics to say the one just published was the best Lew Archer novel yet.

One instance of this was when Macdonald’s good friend Eudora Welty reviewed The Underground Man for the New York Times in 1971:

“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, before the eyes without a blur. It is an almost unbroken series of sparkling pictures.

The style that works so well to produce fluidity and grace also suggests a mind much given to contemplation and reflection on our world. Mr. Macdonald’s writing is something like a stand of clean, cool, well‐branched, well-tended trees in which bright birds can flash and perch. And not for show, but to sing. (quoted from required)

That Macdonald could continue such stylistic magnificence over more than 20 years of writing is one genre testifies to his greatest as a writer and justifies those who argue that his work should be included in what is considered to be the best of American literature.

And in the tradition of hard-boiled detective writing, just as Macdonald and Lew Archer were leaving the scene in the early 1980s, a new writer and a new detective appeared to expand the genre even more. Sue Grafton created female detective Kinsey Millhone in A is for Alibi and gave full credit for her creation to Ross Macdonald and Lew Archer.





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