All Ross Macdonald, All the Time

It took a while to become available online but Scott Timberg’s lengthy LA Times piece on Ross Macdonald – and Vintage’s plans to make the entire series available in print by early next year – is definitely worth reading:

Ross Macdonald was the pen name of Kenneth Millar (1915-83), who,

though raised in Vancouver, spent most of his career in Santa Barbara

and set the bulk of his novels in and around L.A. Though he’s not as

well known as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, in part because he

had less luck with movie and television adaptations, Macdonald’s novels

helped rewrite the hard-boiled tradition. (He was married to mystery

writer Margaret Millar.)

The Archer books, over three decades, move gradually away from the

hard-boiled model associated with Chandler into a more personal

approach, often marked by an interest in the California land- and

seascape and in the unraveling of society. With their runaway children,

idle rich, recreational drug use, rampant divorce and deepening

generation gap, the novels seem to track the beginnings of contemporary

Southern California.

“Once he found his own prose style,” said [ARCHER FILES editor and Ross MacDonald biographer Tom] Nolan, “which was very poetic

and elegant and precise, he wrote novels which would never be mistaken

for a Chandler or a Hammett book. He moved away from the emphasis on

criminals and gangsters to looking at the tragedy and pathos of family

life. His approach was more like Ibsen, who blamed everybody: There was

enough guilt in his books to go around.”

The list of authors influenced by Macdonald are many – John Connolly, Michael Chabon (quoted in the piece) James Ellroy, Sue Grafton and Robert Crais, are just a few:

“I view Lew Archer as an anonymous man,” says Crais. “And I suspect that was

Macdonald’s intention.” The novels’ other characters stand out more

strongly because the personality filtering them doesn’t overwhelm them. “With Chandler,” said Crais, “the characters are observed through

the Marlowe lens,” which is tempered with the private eye’s dry

cynicism. “But in Macdonald, the window you’re looking through was

clear glass.”