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Digging for Lew Archer

The Renaissance of Ross Macdonald's Mystery Novels Is Stirring Interest in the Late Writer's Muse. For the Source of His Hard-Boiled Fiction, Look to Auden, Hammett, Dante and Dickens.

June 18, 2000|TOM NOLAN | Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography," published last year by Scribner. His last article for the magazine was a reminiscence of Musso & Frank restaurant in Hollywood

But when he put pen to paper, the pages came out wrong. Millar the trained critic saw the problem. What should be clean and precise was emotional and sloppy. Where the author should be detached and objective, he was upset--still mad about what had happened. Another writer might have kept working at the manuscript, but Millar couldn't afford to. He'd lost the best part of a year on the effort, while Margaret continued to turn out books, including a comic work about her own Kitchener childhood which became a minor bestseller.

To hold his own, he conceived a novel with a new private-eye hero: Lew Archer. The book, which he wrote and rewrote, was in the Hammett-Chandler mode but he wanted to extend and expand those writers' styles, not simply mimic them. Millar hoped to put his own stamp on the private eye story, and he looked for ways to reshape the form.

Auden's influence rose again. Millar remembered "The Divine Comedy," which he'd studied closely for Auden's class, where he'd gained a great appreciation of Dante's technique. Millar had pointed out back then to his friend Pearce, who also had gone on to the University of Michigan, that the imagery in the Inferno was heavy, concrete, specific, dark: "So like the place that's being described." But how different was the Purgatorio imagery, Millar said: "It's clear, rational, careful and calculated--exactly what ought to occur in a place where you get cleansed of all your mud and error and sin and guilt." Now Millar put such stylistic lessons to use, making Dante's "Comedy" a frame of reference for Archer's California, whose citizens evade or become exposed by or struggle toward a clarifying light.

Millar wrote "The Moving Target" and sent it to his publisher, who made a decision that unintentionally completed the evolution of Kenneth Millar into Ross Macdonald.

Knopf unexpectedly balked at buying the book, claiming it was inferior to the firm's two earlier Millar novels. But the publisher just as surprisingly agreed to print the work in 1949 provided the author take a pseudonym. Millar chose as his new ID his father's middle name, Macdonald. As for the "Ross," it was a common name in Canada then, occurring in both Ken's and Margaret's families--and as the middle name of friend Donald Ross Pearce.

Lew Archer's first case was a success; the book was chosen by a mystery book club and a paperback house. As the Archer series continued over the next quarter-century, Millar found that his mystery fiction could accommodate as much of his literary knowledge as he cared to put into it. He purposely constructed Archer books on the frameworks of Greek myths ("The Drowning Pool," "The Way Some People Die," "The Galton Case"), Romantic odes ("The Chill"), Victorian fiction ("The Instant Enemy") and 17th century French fable ("Sleeping Beauty"). He filled them with apt allusions to Sophocles, Coleridge and Dickens, and he wrote them in a style adapted from Symbolist and Imagist poets.

Over time, the books revealed more and more of his individual experience: his troubled youth, his good and bad relatives, his concerns for his wife and daughter. He came to see that he needed the mystery form to deal with sensitive material that he was unable to handle more directly. By the time of his death in 1983, Ross Macdonald had altered the detective genre to tell personal stories resonating with classical echoes--to write books that moved and had meaning for all types of readers. The sort of books he'd always wanted to write.


Public radio station KCRW (89.9-FM) will present an unabridged dramatization of Macdonald's "The Zebra-Striped Hearse" starting at 9 a.m. on July 3.

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