Ross Macdonald

Ross Macdonald is the main pseudonym that was used by the American-Canadian writer of crime fiction Kenneth Millar (/ˈmɪlər/; December 13, 1915 – July 11, 1983). He is best known for his series of hardboiled novels set in Southern California and featuring private detective Lew Archer. Since the 1970s, Macdonald's works (particularly the Archer novels) have received attention in academic circles[1][2][3] for their psychological depth,[4][5] sense of place,[6][7][8] use of language,[9] sophisticated imagery[10] and integration of philosophy into genre fiction.[11]

Ross Macdonald
Ross macdonald.jpg
BornKenneth Millar
(1915-12-13)December 13, 1915
Los Gatos, California
DiedJuly 11, 1983(1983-07-11) (aged 67)
Santa Barbara, California
Pen nameJohn Macdonald, John Ross Macdonald, Ross Macdonald
Alma materUniversity of Western Ontario, University of Michigan
GenreCrime fiction
(m. 1938)

Brought up in the province of Ontario, Canada, Macdonald eventually settled in the state of California, where he died in 1983.


Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, and raised in his Canadian parents' native Kitchener, Ontario. Millar was a Scots spelling of the surname Miller, and the author pronounced his name Miller rather than Millar.[12] When his father abandoned the family unexpectedly when Millar was four years old, he and his mother lived with various relatives, and he had moved several times by his 16th year. Back in Canada as a young adult, he returned to Kitchener, where he studied and graduated from the University of Western Ontario with an Honors degree in History and English. He found work as a high school teacher.[13] Some years later, he attended the University of Michigan and received a PhD in 1952. He married Margaret Sturm in 1938, though they'd known each other earlier in high school. They had a daughter in 1939, Linda, who died in 1970.[14][15] The family moved from Kitchener to Santa Barbara in 1946.[16]

Millar began his career writing stories for pulp magazines and used his real name for his first four novels. Of these he completed the last, The Dark Tunnel, in 1944. After serving at sea as a naval communications officer from 1944 to 1946, Millar returned to Michigan, where he obtained his Ph.D. degree in literature.[17] For his doctorate, Millar studied under poet W.H. Auden, who (unusually for a prominent literary intellectual of the era) held mystery or detective fiction could rise to the level of literature and encouraged Millar's interest in the genre.[12]

For his fifth novel, in 1949, he wrote under the name John Macdonald (his father's first and middle names) in order to avoid confusion with his wife, who was achieving her own success writing as Margaret Millar. He then changed his pen name briefly to John Ross Macdonald, before settling on Ross Macdonald (Ross borrowed from a favorite cousin) in order to avoid being confused with fellow mystery writer John D. MacDonald, who was writing under his real name.[12] Millar would use the pseudonym "Ross Macdonald" on all his fiction from the mid '50s forward.[15]

Most of his books were set primarily in and around his adopted hometown of Santa Barbara. In these works, the city where Lew Archer is based goes under the fictional name of Santa Teresa.

In 1983 Macdonald died of Alzheimer's disease.[14]


Macdonald first introduced the tough but humane private eye Lew Archer in the 1946 short story "Find the Woman" (credited then to "Ken Millar"). A full-length novel featuring him, The Moving Target, followed in 1949 and was the first in a series of eighteen. Macdonald mentions in the foreword to the Archer in Hollywood omnibus that his detective derives his name from Sam Spade's partner, Miles Archer, and from Lew(is) Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, though the character was patterned on Philip Marlowe. Macdonald also stated the surname "Archer" was inspired by his own astrological sign of Sagittarius the archer.[12]

The novels were hailed by genre fans and literary critics alike.[18] The Lew Archer novels are recognized as some of the most significant American mystery books of the mid 20th century, bringing a literary sophistication to the genre. The critic John Leonard declared that Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become "a major American novelist".[19] He has also been called the primary heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as the master of American hardboiled mysteries.[20]

Macdonald's writing built on the pithy style of his predecessors by adding psychological depth and insights into the motivations of his characters.[21] Their plots of "baroque splendor" were complicated and often turned on Archer's unearthing family secrets of upwardly mobile clients, sometimes going back over several generations.[22] Lost or wayward sons and daughters were a theme common to many of the novels.[23] Critics have commented favorably on Macdonald's deft combination of the two sides of the mystery genre, the "whodunit" and the psychological thriller.[24] Even his regular readers seldom saw a Macdonald denouement coming.

Screenwriter William Goldman, who adapted Macdonald's stories to film, called his works "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American".[18] Paul Newman played the lead role in two of the movies from the books which used the titles Harper and The Drowning Pool while Peter Graves starred in the TV movie The Underground Man.[16]

Tom Nolan in his Ross Macdonald, A Biography,[12] wrote, "By any standard he was remarkable. His first books, patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a postwar California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classic myths. Gradually he swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery."

In a 2017 book review, the Wall Street Journal provided this summary of the author's style:[25]

"... it is the sheer beauty of Macdonald’s laconic style—with its seductive rhythms and elegant plainness—that holds us spellbound. 'Hard-boiled,' 'noir,' 'mystery,' it doesn’t matter what you call it. Macdonald, with insolent grace, blows past the barrier constructed by Dorothy Sayers between “the literature of escape” and “the literature of expression.” These novels, triumphs of his literary alchemy, dare to be both."


According to the New York Times, "some critics ranked him among the best American novelists of his generation". William Goldman of the newspaper's Book Review section wrote that the Archer books were "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American".[26]

Over his career, Macdonald was presented with several awards. In 1964, the Mystery Writers of America awarded the author the Silver Dagger award for "The Chill." Ten years later, he received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and in 1982 he received "The Eye", the Lifetime Achievement Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America. In 1982, he was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award by the Los Angeles Times for "an outstanding body of work by an author from the West or featuring the West."[27]


Lew Archer novelsEdit

  1. The Moving Target – 1949 (filmed with Paul Newman as Harper, 1966)
  2. The Drowning Pool – 1950 (also filmed with Paul Newman as The Drowning Pool, 1975)
  3. The Way Some People Die – 1951
  4. The Ivory Grin (aka Marked for Murder) – 1952
  5. Find a Victim – 1954
  6. The Barbarous Coast – 1956
  7. The Doomsters – 1958
  8. The Galton Case – 1959
  9. The Wycherly Woman – 1961
  10. The Zebra-Striped Hearse – 1962
  11. The Chill – 1964
  12. The Far Side of the Dollar – 1965 (1965 CWA Gold Dagger Award winner)
  13. Black Money – 1966
  14. The Instant Enemy – 1968
  15. The Goodbye Look – 1969 (filmed as Tayna 1992)
  16. The Underground Man – 1971 (filmed as a television series pilot in 1974)
  17. Sleeping Beauty – 1973
  18. The Blue Hammer – 1976
  19. The Archer Files, The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer Private Investigator, Including Newly Discovered Case Notes, ed. Tom Nolan – Crippen & Landru, 2007. This contains the contents of The Name Is Archer, the additional stories in Lew Archer, Private Investigator, and the three stories in Strangers in Town. The story "Death by Water" is changed (with the estate's permission) to feature Lew Archer rather than Joe Rogers. The book also includes eleven "case notes" – beginnings of novels or short stories that Macdonald never completed. The story Guilt-Edged Blonde was adapted into the 2002 French film The Wolf Of The West Coast (Le loup de la côte ouest).[28]

Lew Archer short story collectionsEdit

Lew Archer omnibusesEdit

British omnibusesEdit

Allison & Busby published three Archer omnibus editions in the 1990s.

Other novelsEdit

Millar's first four novels, all non-series standalones, were all initially published using his real name. They have since been intermittently reissued, sometimes as by "Ross Macdonald".

Two later non-series novels were also published. One was credited to John Ross Macdonald, the other simply to Ross Macdonald.

Writing as Kenneth MillarEdit

Writing as John Ross MacdonaldEdit

Writing as Ross MacdonaldEdit


  • On Crime Writing – 1973, Santa Barbara : Capra Press, Series title: Yes! Capra chapbook series; no. 11, The Library of Congress bibliographic information includes this note: "Writing The Galton case."
  • Self-Portrait, Ceaselessly Into the Past – 1981, Santa Barbara : Capra Press, collection of book prefaces, magazine articles and interviews.


  1. ^ Grogg, S., Jr. (1973), Ross MacDonald: At the Edge. The Journal of Popular Culture, 7: 213-224.
  2. ^ Browne, Ray B. Ross Macdonald: Revolutionary Author and Critic; or the Need for the Oath of Macdonald.Journal of Popular Culture; Oxford Vol. 24, Iss. 3, (Winter 1990): 101.
  3. ^ Sacks, Sheldon. “The Pursuit of Lew Archer.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 6, no. 2, 1979, pp. 231–238. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.
  4. ^ Paul Skenazy. “Bringing It All Back Home: Ross Macdonald's Lost Father.” The Threepenny Review, no. 12, 1983, pp. 9–11. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.
  5. ^ Fox, Terry Curtis. Psychological Guilt: Ross Macdonald. Film Comment; New York Vol. 20, Iss. 5, (Sep/Oct 1984): 34,80.
  6. ^ Samuel L. Grogg, Jr. (1974)Between the Mountains and the Sea: The Novels of Ross Macdonald, Ph.D. thesis, Bowling Green University
  7. ^ Michael Kreyling. “Lew Archer, House Whisperer.” South Central review. 27.1 (2010): 123–143. Web.
  8. ^ Bacevich, Andrew. “A Not-So-Golden State: The Detective Stories of Ross Macdonald.” The Baffler, no. 29, 2015, pp. 122–126., Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.
  9. ^ Christianson, S.R. (1989), Tough Talk and Wisecracks: Language as Power in American Detective Fiction. The Journal of Popular Culture, 23: 151-162.
  10. ^ Pry, Elmer R. "Ross Macdonald’s Violent California: Imagery Patterns in The Underground Man." Western American Literature, vol. 9 no. 3, 1974, p. 197-203. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/wal.1974.0006.
  11. ^ SHARP, MICHAEL D. “PLOTTING CHANDLER'S DEMISE: ROSS MACDONALD AND THE NEO-ARISTOTELIAN DETECTIVE NOVEL.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 35, no. 3, 2003, pp. 405–426. JSTOR, Accessed 17 Feb. 2021.
  12. ^ a b c d e Tom Nolan, Ross Macdonald, A Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999 ISBN 0-684-81217-7
  13. ^ Flash From the Past: Raised in Kitchener, read around the world 23 October 2020
  14. ^ a b Flash From the Past: Kitchener writers’ family lives were like a bad plot 6 November 2020
  15. ^ a b Weinman, Sarah (November 24, 2020). "Linda, Interrupted". CrimeReads. CrimeReads. Retrieved November 24, 2020.
  16. ^ a b Ross Macdonald Invented Modern Detective Lew Archer 13 October 2015
  17. ^ Flash From the Past: Famous 20th century private eye is rooted in Kitchener July 10, 2020
  18. ^ a b Baker, Robert Allen and Michael T. Nietzel (1985). Private Eyes: One Hundred and One Knights : a Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922–1984. Bowling Green KY: Popular Press. p. 53. ISBN 978-0879723293.
  19. ^ J. Kingston Pierce, "50 Years with Lew Archer: An Anniversary Tribute to Ross Macdonald and his Heroice Yet Passionate Private Eye", January Magazine.
  20. ^ Nickerson, Catherine Ross (2010). "The Detective Story", in A Companion to the American Short Story, edited by Alfred Bendixen & James Nagel. New York: John Wiley & Sons. p. 425. ISBN 978-1405115438.
  21. ^ Miller, Wilbur R. (2012). The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia. Los Angeles: Sage. p. 1019. ISBN 978-1412988766.
  22. ^ Geoffrey O'Brien, Hardboiled America, Van Norstrand Reinhold, 1981, pp.125-8
  23. ^ Jones, Tobias (July 31, 2009). "A passion for mercy". The Guardian. Retrieved May 19, 2013.
  24. ^ Connolly, John and Declan Burke (2012). Books to Die For: The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-1451696578.
  25. ^ Review: Hard-Boiled in California 23 November 2017
  26. ^ Ross Macdonald - A Biography By Tom Nolan
  27. ^ Mystery Writer Ross Macdonald, 67, Dies July 13, 1983
  28. ^ Ronnie Scheib, The Wolf of the West Coast, Variety, 23 September 2002


External linksEdit