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Ross Macdonald biography




Ross Macdonald

(1903 - 1968)

One of the few mystery writers also regarded as a major American novelist. Macdonald was frequently characterized as the successor to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. After writing four novels under his real name, Kenneth Millar, Macdonald turned out his first private-eye novel in 1949. He published the book under the name John Macdonald so as to avoid confusion with his wife, Margaret Millar, who was writing mysteries under her own name. Later he changed his name to John Ross Macdonald to avoid confusion with John D. MacDonald. Finally he dropped the first name, and was known as Ross Macdonald.

Ross Macdonald's famous private detective is Lew Archer, name having been lifted from Dashiell Hammett's novel Maltese Falcon (detective Miles Archer) according to some sources; but from his sign of the zodiac, Sagittarius, according to the author. Archer is a low-key figure who observes the action from sidelines. He was the protagonist of eighteen novels and a handful of short stories.

Kenneth Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, as the son of an itinerant newspaper editor. He was brought to his parents' native Canada as young child, and raised there by his mother after his father left. He studied at the University of Western Ontario (1933-38), and spent during this time a year in Europe. In 1938 he married Margaret Sturm, who as Margaret Millar would start career as an acclaimed mystery writer.

Between 1938 and 1939 Millar studied at the University of Toronto, and continued his studies at the University of Michigan, where he was also a teacher. He served in the United States Naval Reserve in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946. In 1951 he earned his Ph.D., with a dissertation on Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Millar published his first book, THE DARK TUNNEL, in 1944. His first Lew Archer story was THE MOVING TARGET, (1949). It was followed by several other novels, and two short story collections depicting Philip Marlowe-inspired private eye, whose last appearence occurs in THE BLUE HAMMER (1976).

The first half-dozen books in the series were written in the postwar tradition of private eye stories. In 1956 MacDonald moved with his family to San Francisco area for a year. "... people suffered in California just as they did in other places - suffered little more, perhaps, because they didn't get much sympathy from the weather." He underwent a period of pychoterapy, which helped him to find his own approach to the popular genre. THE GALTON CASE (1959) reflected this new phase with its Freudian and symbolic overtones. In the novel Archer is hired by an elderly woman to find her son. When Archer examines the family's troubled past, the story begins to take themes from the Oedipus legend. In the subsequent novels people often commit a crime because of events in their family history.

The formula, where Archer reveals past crimes reflecting Greek tragedies or have Biblical allusions, become Macdonald's trade mark. In this process Archer is not taking the role of tough private eye, but he helps his clients to deeper self-knowledge. As in his novels, Macdonald also suffered a family tragedy when his tormented alcoholic daughter committed suicide. Sea and water are recurring images in Macdonald's books. They are associated with free, powerful natural forces, but often they suggest hidden secrets under the surface. "The sea was cold and dangerous. It held dead men." In SLEEPING BEAUTY (1973) a leaking offshore oil platform reveals irresponsibility in the business world and in the personal level.

In THE CHILL (1964) Archer is engaged to trace a missing spouse, but reveals Oedipal echoes in the realationship between a colege dean and his elderly and lethal wife. Buried memories and anguished relations between parents and children are dealt in such novels as THE FAR SIDE OF THE DOLLAR (1965), and THE UNDERGROUND MAN (1971).

Macdonald's books have been bestsellers in hardcovers. The author was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Archer has been played by Paul Newman in films Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975). William Goldman called the Archer books "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American" in his review of The Goodbye Look in New York Times Book Review.

Millar was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1973. He wrote a study of crime writing (1973), and an autobiography under the title SELF-PORTRAIT (1981). Millar's collected reviews from San Francisco Chronicle and from other magazines and newspapers appeared in 1980. He died of Alzheimers in Santa Barbara on July 11, 1983.

Information source: wikipedia