Ross Macdonald

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Ross Macdonald
Ross Macdonald.jpg
BornKenneth Millar
(1915-12-13)December 13, 1915
Los Gatos, California
DiedJuly 11, 1983(1983-07-11) (aged 67)
Santa Barbara, California
Pen nameJohn Macdonald, John Ross Macdonald, Ross Macdonald
Alma materUniversity of Western Ontario, University of Michigan
GenreCrime fiction
(m. 1938)

Ross Macdonald was the main pseudonym used by the American-Canadian writer of crime fiction Kenneth Millar (/ˈmɪlər/; December 13, 1915 – July 11, 1983). He is best known for his series of hardboiled novels set in Southern California and featuring private detective Lew Archer. Since the 1970s, Macdonald's works (particularly the Archer novels) have received attention in academic circles[1][2][3] for their psychological depth,[4][5] sense of place,[6][7][8] use of language,[9] sophisticated imagery[10] and integration of philosophy into genre fiction.[11]

Brought up in the province of Ontario, Canada, Macdonald eventually settled in the state of California, where he died in 1983.


Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, and raised in his Canadian parents' native Kitchener, Ontario. Millar was a Scots spelling of the surname Miller, and the author pronounced his name Miller rather than Millar.[12] When his father abandoned the family unexpectedly when Millar was four years old, he and his mother lived with various relatives, and he had moved several times by his 16th year. Back in Canada as a young adult, he returned to Kitchener, where he studied, and subsequently graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an Honors degree in History and English. He found work as a high school teacher.[13] Some years later, he attended the University of Michigan and received a PhD in 1952. He married Margaret Sturm in 1938, though they'd known each other earlier in high school. They had a daughter in 1939, Linda, who died in 1970.[14][15] The family moved from Kitchener to Santa Barbara in 1946.[16]

Millar began his career writing stories for pulp magazines and used his real name for his first four novels. Of these he completed the last, The Dark Tunnel, in 1944. After serving at sea as a naval communications officer from 1944 to 1946, Millar returned to Michigan, where he obtained his Ph.D. degree in literature.[17] For his doctorate, Millar studied under poet W.H. Auden, who (unusually for a prominent literary intellectual of the era) held mystery or detective fiction could rise to the level of literature and encouraged Millar's interest in the genre.[12]

For his fifth novel, in 1949, he wrote under the name John Macdonald (his father's first and middle names) in order to avoid confusion with his wife, who was achieving her own success writing as Margaret Millar. He then changed his pen name briefly to John Ross Macdonald, before settling on Ross Macdonald (Ross borrowed from a favorite cousin) in order to avoid being confused with fellow mystery writer John D. MacDonald, who was writing under his real name.[12] Millar would use the pseudonym "Ross Macdonald" on all his fiction from the mid '50s forward.[15]

Most of his books were set primarily in and around his adopted hometown of Santa Barbara. In these works, the city where Lew Archer is based goes under the fictional name of Santa Teresa.

In 1983 Macdonald died of Alzheimer's disease.[14]


Macdonald first introduced the tough but humane private eye Lew Archer in the 1946 short story "Find the Woman" (credited then to "Ken Millar"). A full-length novel featuring him, The Moving Target, followed in 1949 and was the first in a series of eighteen. Macdonald mentions in the foreword to the Archer in Hollywood omnibus that his detective derives his name from Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, and from Lew(is) Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, though the character was patterned on Philip Marlowe. Macdonald also stated the surname "Archer" was inspired by his own astrological sign of Sagittarius the archer.[12]

The novels were hailed by genre fans and literary critics alike.[18] The Lew Archer novels are recognized as some of the most significant American mystery books of the mid 20th century, bringing a literary sophistication to the genre. The critic John Leonard declared that Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become "a major American novelist".[19] He has also been called the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the master of American hardboiled mysteries.[20]

Macdonald's writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters.[21] Their plots of "baroque splendor" were complicated and often turned on Archer's unearthing family secrets of upwardly mobile clients, sometimes going back over several generations.[22] Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels.[23] Critics have commented favorably on Macdonald's deft combination of the two sides of the mystery genre, the "whodunit" and the psychological thriller.[24] Even his regular readers seldom saw a Macdonald denouement coming.

Screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted Macdonald's The Moving Target to film as Harper in 1966, called his works "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American".[25] A later film adaptation was The Drowning Pool (1975), also starring Paul Newman as the detective "Lew Harper".[26] In addition, The Underground Man was adapted as a TV movie in 1974.[27]

Tom Nolan in his Ross Macdonald, A Biography,[12] wrote, "By any standard he was remarkable. His first books, patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a postwar California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classic myths. Gradually he swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery."

In a 2017 book review, the Wall Street Journal provided this summary of the author's style:[28]

"... it is the sheer beauty of Macdonald’s laconic style—with its seductive rhythms and elegant plainness—that holds us spellbound. 'Hard-boiled,' 'noir,' 'mystery,' it doesn’t matter what you call it. Macdonald, with insolent grace, blows past the barrier constructed by Dorothy Sayers between “the literature of escape” and “the literature of expression.” These novels, triumphs of his literary alchemy, dare to be both."


According to the New York Times, "some critics ranked him among the best American novelists of his generation." William Goldman of the newspaper's Book Review section wrote that the Archer books were "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American".[29]

Over his career, Macdonald was presented with several awards. In 1964, the Mystery Writers of America awarded the author the Silver Dagger award for "The Chill." Ten years later, he received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and in 1982 he received "The Eye," the Lifetime Achievement Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. In 1982, he was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award by the Los Angeles Times for "an outstanding body of work by an author from the West or featuring the West."[30]


Writing as Kenneth Millar[edit]

These first four novels, all non-series standalones, were initially published using Millar's real name, but have since been intermittently reissued using his literary pseudonym, Ross Macdonald.

Other non-series novels[edit]

Two later non-series novels were also published:

Lew Archer[edit]


  1. The Moving Target – 1949 (filmed with Paul Newman as Harper, 1966)
  2. The Drowning Pool – 1950 (also filmed with Paul Newman as The Drowning Pool, 1975)
  3. The Way Some People Die – 1951
  4. The Ivory Grin (aka Marked for Murder) – 1952
  5. Find a Victim – 1954
  6. The Barbarous Coast – 1956
  7. The Doomsters – 1958
  8. The Galton Case – 1959
  9. The Wycherly Woman – 1961
  10. The Zebra-Striped Hearse – 1962
  11. The Chill – 1964
  12. The Far Side of the Dollar – 1965 (1965 CWA Gold Dagger Award winner)
  13. Black Money – 1966
  14. The Instant Enemy – 1968
  15. The Goodbye Look – 1969 (filmed as Tayna 1992)
  16. The Underground Man – 1971 (filmed as a television series pilot in 1974)
  17. Sleeping Beauty – 1973
  18. The Blue Hammer – 1976

Short story collections[edit]


British omnibuses[edit]

Allison & Busby published three Archer omnibus editions in the 1990s.


  • On Crime Writing – 1973, Santa Barbara : Capra Press, Series title: Yes! Capra chapbook series; no. 11, The Library of Congress bibliographic information includes this note: "Writing The Galton case."
  • Self-Portrait, Ceaselessly Into the Past – 1981, Santa Barbara : Capra Press, collection of book prefaces, magazine articles and interviews.


  1. ^ Grogg, Sam (June 1973). "Ross MacDonald: At the Edge". The Journal of Popular Culture. 7 (1): 213–224. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1973.00213.x.
  2. ^ Browne, Ray B. (December 1990). "Ross Macdonald: Revolutionary Author and Critic; Or The Need for the Oath of Macdonald". The Journal of Popular Culture. 24 (3): 101–111. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1990.2403_101.x. ProQuest 195365876.
  3. ^ Sacks, Sheldon (1979). "The Pursuit of Lew Archer". Critical Inquiry. 6 (2): 231–238. doi:10.1086/448044. JSTOR 1343244. S2CID 161660586.
  4. ^ Skenazy, Paul (1983). "Bringing It All Back Home: Ross Macdonald's Lost Father". The Threepenny Review (12): 9–11. JSTOR 4383163.
  5. ^ Fox, Terry Curtis (1984). "Psychological Guilt: Ross Macdonald". Film Comment. 20 (5): 34, 80. ProQuest 210243329.
  6. ^ Grogg, Samuel L. (1974). Between the Mountains and the Sea: Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer Novels (Thesis).
  7. ^ Michael Kreyling. “Lew Archer, House Whisperer.” South Central review. 27.1 (2010): 123–143. Web.
  8. ^ Bacevich, Andrew (2015). "A Not-So-Golden State: The detective stories of Ross Macdonald". The Baffler (29): 122–126. JSTOR 43959251.
  9. ^ Christianson, Scott R. (1989). "Tough Talk and Wisecracks: Language as Power in American Detective Fiction". The Journal of Popular Culture. 23 (2): 151–162. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1989.00151.x.
  10. ^ Pry, Elmer R. (1974). "Ross Macdonald's Violent California: Imagery Patterns in The Underground Man". Western American Literature. 9 (3): 197–203. doi:10.1353/wal.1974.0006. S2CID 165787318.
  11. ^ Sharp, Michael D. (September 22, 2003). "Plotting Chandler's Demise: Ross Macdonald and the Neo-Aristotelian detective novel". Studies in the Novel. 35 (3): 405–428. JSTOR 29533588. Gale A109085457 ProQuest 212626987.
  12. ^ a b c d e Tom Nolan, Ross Macdonald, A Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999 ISBN 0-684-81217-7
  13. ^ Flash From the Past: Raised in Kitchener, read around the world 23 October 2020
  14. ^ a b Flash From the Past: Kitchener writers’ family lives were like a bad plot 6 November 2020
  15. ^ a b Weinman, Sarah (November 24, 2020). "Linda, Interrupted". CrimeReads. CrimeReads. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  16. ^ Ross Macdonald Invented Modern Detective Lew Archer 13 October 2015
  17. ^ Flash From the Past: Famous 20th century private eye is rooted in Kitchener July 10, 2020
  18. ^ Baker, Robert Allen and Michael T. Nietzel (1985). Private Eyes: One Hundred and One Knights : a Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922–1984. Bowling Green KY: Popular Press. p. 53. ISBN 978-0879723293.
  19. ^ J. Kingston Pierce, "50 Years with Lew Archer: An Anniversary Tribute to Ross Macdonald and his Heroice Yet Passionate Private Eye", January Magazine.
  20. ^ Nickerson, Catherine Ross (2010). "The Detective Story", in A Companion to the American Short Story, edited by Alfred Bendixen & James Nagel. New York: John Wiley & Sons. p. 425. ISBN 978-1405115438.
  21. ^ Miller, Wilbur R. (2012). The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Sage. p. 1019. ISBN 978-1412988766.
  22. ^ Geoffrey O'Brien, Hardboiled America, Van Norstrand Reinhold, 1981, pp.125-8
  23. ^ Jones, Tobias (July 31, 2009). "A passion for mercy". The Guardian. Retrieved May 19, 2013.
  24. ^ Connolly, John and Declan Burke (2012). Books to Die For: The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-1451696578.
  25. ^ New York Times archive
  26. ^ "The Drowning Pool", Encyclopedia Brittanica
  27. ^ Movietone News 32, June 1974
  28. ^ Review: Hard-Boiled in California 23 November 2017
  29. ^ Ross Macdonald - A Biography By Tom Nolan
  30. ^ Mystery Writer Ross Macdonald, 67, Dies July 13, 1983


External links[edit]

  • Marling, William, "Hard-Boiled Fiction", Case Western Reserve University
  • J. Kingston Pierce, "50 Years with Lew Archer: An Anniversary Tribute to Ross Macdonald and His Heroic Yet Compassionate Private Eye, [1] by January Magazine, April 1999]
  • Lew Archer oder:Der Detektiv als Statthalter konkreter Utopie An interview with Macdonald
  • Leonard Cassuto, "The last testament of Ross Macdonald", The Boston Globe, 11/2/2003