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A vision beyond the private eye

The Novels of Ross Macdonald Michael Kreyling University of South Carolina Press: 186 pp., $34.95

January 01, 2006|Tom Nolan | Tom Nolan is the author of "Ross Macdonald: A Biography" and editor of "The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries" by Margaret Millar.

THE author known as Ross Macdonald -- real name, Kenneth Millar (1915-83) -- worked hard for what he achieved, and what he achieved, in a 30-year career that took him from obscurity to the cover of Newsweek, was remarkable. Recognized by critics as the successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and a culminating figure in the American hard-boiled tradition, he was also viewed as a peer by such mainstream literary writers as Reynolds Price, Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Berger and Eudora Welty. Living in and writing about Southern California, Macdonald became a major author of the Golden State -- the third recipient (after Wright Morris and Wallace Stegner) of the Los Angeles Times' Robert Kirsch Award for work centered on the American West. As for his detective fiction -- 24 novels, 18 featuring an L.A. private investigator named Lew Archer -- its artistic merit and bestselling success set the standard for a generation of genre authors.

The culture has been a bit neglectful of Macdonald's work since his death from Alzheimer's disease in Santa Barbara 22 years ago. But now Michael Kreyling, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University and author of "Understanding Eudora Welty," does much to redress that neglect with "The Novels of Ross Macdonald," a stimulating examination by a first-rate critical intelligence of the books that William Goldman (in the New York Times Book Review) described as "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." Kreyling reasserts Goldman's claim, calling Macdonald "the foremost author of the detective novel in American literature." And he expands it: "As a body of work, the Archer novels stand as one of the most illustrious achievements in American novel writing."

Kreyling analyzes that achievement in eight engrossing chapters, in which he sorts Macdonald's books chronologically but also in groups "bundled with different thematic twine." Kreyling warns a reader that he will discuss these works not as a secrets-keeping reviewer of detective stories but as an analyzer of novels -- so "[b]e prepared to be told whodunit." Best then to read the novels under discussion beforehand, if you wish to avoid what mystery buffs call "spoilers." Best too to be wary of a handful of factual errors sprinkled through the biographical passages of this narrative. For instance: St. John's, the private school attended by the Canadian-raised Millar, was in Winnipeg, not Medicine Hat; and after Millar's daughter disappeared for 10 days in 1959, she was found not in Los Angeles but in Reno.

Such lapses, though regrettable, detract not a bit from the overall achievement of Kreyling's superb work. He nicely demonstrates how the sorrows of young Millar (the only child of an emotionally beleaguered mother and a father who deserted the family) became the substance of Macdonald's tales: "[S]pinning lead into gold in his Archer novels," Kreyling writes, "Macdonald transformed a truly unhappy childhood into the foundation for his fiction." He's also very good at showing how Millar, while a graduate student at the University of Michigan and with the help of such brilliant teachers as W.H. Auden, gleaned patterns and insights for his later private-eye novels from the works of Kierkegaard, Coleridge and Kafka.

With clarity and wit, the author describes how a novice Macdonald, in his early books -- such as 1949's "The Moving Target" and 1950's "The Drowning Pool" -- grappled with the legacy of his predecessors Hammett and Chandler, in an intense effort to find a style of his own ("He struggled with his forerunners as Jacob struggled with the angel -- for his very name and standing").

From the first, this socially conscious and psychologically inclined novelist forged a different path from his more overtly hard-boiled colleagues. In Macdonald's stories, Kreyling notes, "Finding out who did it is not as important as finding out how many willful and accidental accomplices there were, and how far back in the history of a doomed family the evil began." As Macdonald's skills and confidence increased, his investigator became more and more in tune with the postwar zeitgeist: "Archer was increasingly meeting clients who needed an analyst as much as, or more than, they needed a private detective. In hindsight it seems inevitable that the decade of the 1950s would make or break Archer and Macdonald. The audience was ready, the cultural mood was right, and Macdonald had the tools."

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