Ross Macdonald was born Kenneth Millar in Canada in 1915. He was abandoned by his father at an early age, perhaps setting into motion the themes he would pursue in his stories.
He completed a Ph.D at the University of Michigan but ended up using his talents as a crime fiction writer rather than a scholar. His wife, Margaret Millar, a great talent in her own right, shares something with her husband beside a genre: both write psychologically attuned mysteries that examine the family in all its complexity. Few of their books do not delve into family secrets, grievances, ill-treatment. Macdonald’s first novel was published in 1944.
He died in 1983, suffering from Alzheimers. The Millars had one daughter who they lost early on. A grandson died prematurely too.
Most critics regard Macdonald as one of the greatest practitioners of the craft and his hero, Lew Archer as one of the great detectives. Perhaps few characters have inhabited so many books and revealed so little of a personal nature. But he is the prism through which some of the most complex crime stories of the time passed. And he could sure solve a crime.
Strangers in Town: Three Newly-discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald, edited by Tom Nolan
(Review by Deb)
Containing three short stories (only one of which was published in Macdonald’s lifetime), written in 1945, 1950, and 1955 respectively, Strangers in Towndisplays some of the earliest themes, characterizations, plot twists, and motifs that are found in Macdonald’s longer works. In each one of these stories, we see elements emerge that will be explored more fully in future mysteries, including the development of Macdonald’s series private investigator, Lew Archer.
The first story, Death by Water, was published in 1945 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine under Macdonald’s real name, Kenneth Millar. Written while Millar was serving on a naval vessel in the Pacific Theater of WWII, the story features Lew Archer prototype, p.i. Joe Rogers, who is investigating the drowning death of a wealthy man. Was it just an unfortunate accident or was he deliberately killed? And, if the latter, who is the killer? The man’s younger, wheelchair-bound wife has only a few months to live herself. The man’s stepson is on a navy ship (much like Millar himself when he wrote this story) and therefore unable to have committed the crime. How about the dead man’s brother, who struggles to live on a limited income? And where was the wife’s personal nurse when the death occurred? Millar manages to pack a lot of suspects and motives into a few pages, but what I found most interesting about the story was the reference to ALS (aka, Lou Gehrig’s disease) just a few years after Gehrig himself succumbed to the condition.
Lew Archer appears in the next story, 1950’s Strangers in Town, where he is hired by a woman to prove that her son did not kill a pretty, secretive young woman who was renting a room in her house. Archer has to travel to a dusty town in the California desert to investigate this one. As in much of Macdonald’s longer fiction, the small California community in which the story is set is a character in itself. What I liked most about the story was the sympathetic and dignified treatment of African-American and Hispanic characters (the victim and the alleged killer are both black; the attorney defending the young man is Mexican-American)—they are depicted neither as caricatures nor noble stoics, but as fully-realized characters with the standard human mix of decency, faults, and failings.
The final story in the collection is 1955’s The Angry Man which features several frequent Macdonald themes: The mentally-ill and the often callous treatment they receive from law enforcement and society as a whole; wealthy but dysfunctional families; the lengths to which people who have no money will go in order to get it; and the juxtaposition of a character’s surface persona with their inward self. You can also see Macdonald working on the technical problem of how to have a first-person, non-omniscient narrator receive and communicate information without the story devolving into one long piece of exposition (I think Macdonald handles this type of narrative extremely well in both his short and long fiction). Neither this story nor Strangers in Town was published in Macdonald’s lifetime. He decision not to publish these works was not because they did not measure up to his standards but for quite the opposite reason: He liked what he had written so much that he wanted to expand upon it and develop the material into longer works.
As entertaining as these short stories are, I found the most interesting thing about the book to be its long, informative introduction written by Tom Nolan which quotes extensively from letters Millar/Macdonald wrote to his wife (fellow novelist, Margaret Millar—herself an FFB honoree some time ago) while he was serving in the Navy. During long, occasionally dangerous, deployments, Millar was able to read extensively from the ship’s library and continue to write fiction and develop his ideas for writing first-person murder-mysteries narrated by the hard-boiled but moral private investigator who ultimately became Lew Archer.
The Chill, Patti Abbott
I found reviewing this book exceedingly difficult. The plot is very complicated and stopping at a point where not too many reveals have been mentioned is nearly impossible. So I will err here on the side of telling too little rather than too much.
Archer is hired by the callow youth, Alex Kincaid, to find his new wife Dolly, who has suddenly disappeared. Archer takes the case when it is clear the police are uninterested and finds Dolly quickly, but of course complications arise.
A man from her past has shown up at their hotel. This and the death of her college advisor, Helen Haggerty, has sent her into flight. She claims, in fact, that she’s caused Helen’s death. Archer puts Dolly into a rest home with a man who has treated her in the past for similar incidents. Kincaid hangs around to keep an eye on her.
It seems that Dolly is linked to a number of mysterious deaths over a long period. The dean of the college Dolly attends also figures into the story at multiple points. He is dominated by his mother although puts up less of a fuss than you might expect.
This is very much a story about family relationships and how children can be manipulated by adults. The past has the present in a stranglehold in this book. Try as they might, the characters in THE CHILL are helpless but to follow a path they sometimes had no hand in making. Although many characters in THE CHILL only appear on the page for a minute or two, they are each given the traits to be memorable. Archer himself is the least memorable and I think Macdonald planned it thusly.
My favorite line, and one that sums up much of the plot, is “I’m beginning to hate old women.”
Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator, Including Newly Discovered Case Notes (Crippen & Landru, 2007)
In 2001 Crippen & Landru had a major coup by publishing three newly discovered Ross Macdonald stories (two featuring Lew Archer) in Stranger in Town. Millar’s biographer Tom Nolan wrote a long introduction and put the stories in context. It was a must have book for fans.
In 2007 Crippen & Landru topped that with the volume at hand, which contains not only the stories from the previous book but those from the earlier Archer collections, The Name is Archer (1955) and Lew Archer, Private Investigator (1977), as well as 11 “case notes” that were ideas for possible future stories, written between 1953 and 1965. This time Nolan’s introduction is about the character, Lew Archer.
Whether you are a long time fan or a neophyte to Macdonald’s work, reading him for the first time, this is a book you need to get, whether you regularly read short stories or not. It is great having all of them together in one place and the book is highly recommended. I don’t know if it is still in print but you should definitely check It out. It is 350 pages of terrific reading.
One final bonus. The book has been designed to look like a Bantam paperback of the 1960s by “Jeff Wong (after Mitch Hooks)” with a portrait of the author.
The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962)
This is mid-period Archer, originally published just over 50 years ago, in between two of his most memorable books, The Galton Case and The Chill. The plot seems as old as humanity and still timeless today. A somewhat immature 24 year old woman, anxious to get out from under her domineering father’s influence, falls in love and plans to run off with artist Burke Damis after a very short acquaintance. But when Lew Archer is hired by (retired) Colonel Blackwell to break up the romance he finds disturbing indications that Damis is not who he says he is. Indeed, is he really a con man and is he in fact connected to two earlier murders?
Archer runs all over Southern California and travels as far south as Mexico and north to Lake Tahoe and the complicated plot takes many turns until you realize things are not nearly as simple as they first seem. The titular hearse of the title is not metaphoric, by the way, but an actual vehicle that plays a part in the solution. Macdonald fans probably read this one years ago but I didn’t and I’m glad I corrected that oversight now.
both the above by Jeff Meyerson
Ross Macdonald Reviews
Sergio Angelini, THE DROWNING POOL and THE GALTON CASE
Books to the Ceiling, THE WAY SOME PEOPLE DIE
Brian Busby, I DIE SLOWLY
Bill Crider, THE DROWNING POOL
J. Escribano, THE MOVING TARGET
Curt Evans, THE BARBAROUS COAST
Ray Garraty, THE DROWNING POOL
Ed Gorman, THE ARCHER FILES
Bruce Grossman, THE BLUE HAMMER
George Kelley, THE FAR SIDE OF THE DOLLAR
Randy Johnson, THE FERGUSON AFFAIR
Nick Jones, THE UNDERGROUND MAN. BLACK MONEY (covers)
Laura Langer, THE IVORY GRIN
B.F. Lawson, THE ARCHER FILES
Evan Lewis, BLUE CITY
Steve Lewis, THE DROWNING POOL
Todd Mason, LEW ARCHER: PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR
Pageturners, THE GOODBYE LOOK
Richard Pangburn, THE THREE ROADS
James Reasoner, THE ARCHER FILES
Kelly Robinson, THE IMAGINARY BLONDE
Richard Robinson, THE ZEBRA-STRIPED HEARSE
Chris Routledge, THE WYCHERLY WOMAN
Michael Slind, FIND A VICTIM
Kerrie Smith, THE CHILL
Mary Ann Smyth, THE DOOMSTERS
Kevin Tipple/Patrick Ohl, THE DROWNING POOL
Prashant Trikannad,THE NAME IS LEW ARCHER
James Winter, SLEEPING BEAUTY
And elsewhere in blogdom
Yvette Banek, MURDER ON THE BLACKBOARD, Stuart Palmer
Joe Barone, A VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS, Nancy Pickard
Martin Edwards, DEATH HAS A PAST, Anita Boutell
Curt Evans, THE MARK OF CAIN, Carolyn Wells
Ed Gorman, EYE IN THE RING, Robert Randisi
Jerry House, INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER: POGO, Walt Kelly
Margot Kinberg, A CARRION’S DEATH, Michael Stanley
J.F. Norris, MASTERS OF THE MACABRE, Rusell Thorndyke
Ron Scheer, THE CABIN BOOK, Charles Sealsfield
Prashant Trikannad, THREE YOUNG RANCH MEN, Captain Ralph Bonehill
TomCat, THE CASE OF THE FOUR FRIENDS, J.C. Masterman