Ross Macdonald

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This article is about the author. For the Canadian sailor, see Ross MacDonald.
Not to be confused with John D. MacDonald.
Ross Macdonald
Ross macdonald.jpg
Born Kenneth Millar
(1915-12-13)December 13, 1915
Los Gatos, California
Died July 11, 1983(1983-07-11) (aged 67)
Santa Barbara, California
Pen name John Macdonald, John Ross Macdonald, Ross Macdonald
Occupation Novelist
Nationality American–Canadian
Alma mater University of Michigan
Genre Crime fiction
Spouse Margaret Millar

Ross Macdonald is the main pseudonym that was 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.

The Lew Archer novels are widely recognized as some of the most significant American mystery books of the mid-20th Century, bringing unprecedented levels of psychological insight and literary sophistication to the genre. John Leonard, longtime critic for The New York Times Book Review, declared that Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become "a major American novelist"[2]

Brought up in Ontario, Macdonald eventually settled in California, where he died in 1983.


Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, and raised in his parents' native Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, where he started college. When his father abandoned his family unexpectedly, Macdonald lived with his mother and various relatives, moving several times by his sixteenth year.

In Canada, he met and married Margaret Sturm in 1938. They had a daughter, Linda, who died in 1970. He began his career writing stories for pulp magazines. Millar attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and a PhD in literature. While doing graduate study, he completed his first novel, The Dark Tunnel, in 1944. For his first four novels, he used his real name. After serving at sea as a naval communications officer from 1944 to 1946, Millar returned to Michigan, where he obtained his PhD degree.

For his fifth novel, in 1949, he wrote under the name John Macdonald, 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, in order to avoid being confused with fellow mystery writer John D. MacDonald, who wrote under his real name. Millar would use the pseudonym "Ross Macdonald" on all his fiction from the mid-fifties forward.

In the early 1950s, he returned to California, settling for some thirty years in Santa Barbara, the area where most of his books were set. In these the city is referred to under the fictional name of Santa Teresa. In 1983 Macdonald died of Alzheimer's disease.


Macdonald first introduced the tough but humane private eye Lew Archer in the 1946 short story "Find the Woman" (credited to "Ken Millar"; he would subsequently use variations of "John Ross Macdonald" on all his writing.) A full-length novel, The Moving Target, followed in 1949. This novel (the first in a series of eighteen) would become the basis for the 1966 Paul Newman film Harper.[3] 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 he was patterned on Philip Marlowe.

Macdonald has been called the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the master of American hardboiled mysteries.[4] His writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters.[5] Author Tom Rizzo has pointed out that Macdonald's plots were complicated, and often turned on Archer's unearthing family secrets of his clients and of the criminals who victimized them.[6] Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels.[7] Critics have commented favorably on Macdonald's deft combination of the two sides of the mystery genre, the "whodunit" and the psychological thriller.[8] Even his regular readers seldom saw a Macdonald denouement coming.

Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Macdonald's writing was hailed by genre fans and literary critics alike.[9] Eudora Welty, a longtime friend and possible lover,[10] was a loyal fan of his work.[11] Screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted Macdonald's stories to film, called his works "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American".[9] 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."

Over his career, Macdonald was presented with only two awards. He received "The Eye", the Lifetime Achievement Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 1982. And in 1974, he received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, after never winning or being nominated for that organization's Edgar Award for Best Novel, despite critical acclaim in his later years, most especially for The Underground Man, which received numerous positive reviews – including a front page review in "The New York Times" written by Eudora Welty. Macdonald was the MWA organization's president, eight years after his wife, who herself was given the Grand Master Award the year Macdonald died. In May 2015, the Library of America published "Four Novels of the 1950s: The Way Some People Die, The Barbarous Coast, The Doomsters and The Galton Case", edited by Tom Nolan, reportedly the first of three volumes of his collected work. A second Library of America volume of MacDonald's Archer novels—from the 1960s—is tentatively scheduled for Summer 2016. Copyright issues are being negotiated, but as of June 2015, it has been announced that the second Library of America collection of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels will include "The Zebra-Striped Hearse", "The Chill" and "The Far Side of the Dollar".


Among those novelists who have acknowledged Macdonald as an important influence in their own work are Sue Grafton, Linwood Barclay, Gaylord Larsen, John Connolly, John Shannon, and Rintaro Norizuki.


Lew Archer novels[edit]

Lew Archer short story collections[edit]

  • The Name is Archer (paperback original containing seven stories) – 1955
  • Lew Archer: Private Investigator (The Name is Archer + two additional stories) – 1977
  • Strangers in Town (Two of the three short stories include Lew Archer; one,"Death by Water," features Joe Rogers) – Crippen & Landru, 2001
  • The Archer Files, The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer Private Investigator, Including Newly Discovered Case Notes, ed. Tom Nolan – Crippen & Landru, 2007. (Contains the contents of The Name Is Archer, the additional stories in Lew Archer, Private Investigator, and the three stories in Strangers in Town; "Death by Water" has been changed (with the estate's permission) to feature Lew Archer rather than Joe Rogers. The book also includes 11 "case notes" – beginnings of novels or short stories that Macdonald never completed.)

Lew Archer omnibuses[edit]

British omnibuses[edit]

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

Other novels[edit]

Millar's first four novels, all non-series standalones, were all initially published using his real name. They have since been intermittently reissued, sometimes as by "Ross Macdonald".

Two later non-series novels were also published. One was credited to John Ross Macdonald, the other simply to Ross Macdonald.

writing as Kenneth Millar[edit]

writing as John Ross Macdonald[edit]

writing as Ross Macdonald[edit]


  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Author revives sleuth for second mystery". NewsTimes. July 11, 2005. Retrieved 2012-07-19. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ According to Tom Nolan's biography of Macdonald, Newman got Archer's name changed because his previous two hit movies, Hud and The Hustler, had started with "H".
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Miller, Wilbur R. (2012). The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Sage. p. 1019. ISBN 978-1412988766. 
  6. ^ Rizzo, Tom. "Ross Macdonald, Master of Mystery Fiction". Retrieved May 19, 2013. 
  7. ^ Jones, Tobias (July 31, 2009). "A passion for mercy". The Guardian. Retrieved May 19, 2013. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ a b 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. 
  10. ^ "'Eudora Welty: A Biography' by Suzanne Marrs". August 14, 2005. Retrieved 2012-07-19. 
  11. ^ Cassuto, Leonard. "''Boston Globe'' article, 11/2/03". Retrieved 2012-07-19. 
  12. ^ Tom Nolan, Ross Macdonald, A Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999 ISBN 0-684-81217-7


Kreyling, Michael. "The Novels of Ross Macdonald" University of South Carolina Press, 2005. ISBN 1-57003-577-6

External links[edit]