Ross Macdonald, Master of Mystery Fiction

ROSS MACDONALD wrote complicated plots about the idle rich and their wayward, self-destructive children. Many of his stories touched on family secrets and fears.


Eighteen of his novels featured private eye Lew Harper, a six-foot-two, 190-pound heavy smoker with blue-gray eyes.

Archer who lived in a modest second floor apartment in West Los Angeles—a man with a visual appreciation for pretty women and a taste for hard liquor.

Success did not come easy. Macdonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, was rejected by the publisher of his first four books, according to Crime Fiction Editor J.Kingston Pierce.


Critics ranked Macdonald and authors Dashiell Hammett  and Raymond Chandler as “the holy trinity of American crime writers.”

But Macdonald managed to rise above Hammett and Chandler, his literary predecessors, by adding more depth to his literary gumshoe.

As the series expanded, so did Archer. In Macdonald’s skillful hands, his private eye became multi-dimensional and less predictable. He succeeded in pushing the crime novel in a new direction, one that readers devoured.

The name of the fictional private detective was changed from Lew Archer  to Lew Harper in the feature film “Harper” (1966), an adaptation of Macdonald’s 1949 series debut novel, “The Moving Target.” Paul Newman played Harper. He also starred in the 1975 film “The Drowning Pool,” which was based on a similarly titled 1950 Macdonald novel.


Macdonald’s novels–which sold millions–were serious, not so much about violence than the deep-seated reasons behind the violence.

Many of his stories focused on the psychological deterioration of generations.

Ross Macdonald was the pen name for Kenneth Millar was born in Los Gatos, California, Dec. 15, 1915. After his parents separated, he went to Canada with his mother where he attended the University Western Ontario.

Taking a break from his studies, he traveled throughout Europe for about a year. When he returned, Macdonald enrolled in the University of Michigan and obtained a Ph.D in American literature in 1951.


Macdonald started writing under the name John Macdonald, then John Ross McDonald, and finally as Ross Macdonald.

His Lew Archer novels drew more critical acclaim than any other author of private eye stories.

 “Ten years ago, while nobody was watching–or, rather, while everyone was looking in the wrong direction–a writer of detective stories turned into a major American novelist. –John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review

“…the greatest mystery novelist of his age, I would argue, even greater than Chandler.” –Author John Connolly.

In addition to novels, Macdonald wrote short stories, short non-fiction, and a number of essays. The stories he wrote bordered on the personal.


Many of the themes he wrote about were reflected in his own dysfunctional life.

He grew up essentially fatherless, got involved in violent fights as a youngster. He admitted to taking a lot of chances as a youngster, including having sex at eight years old, drinking when he was twelve.

When Macdonald died in 1983, from Alzheimer’s, he was considered the most most highly-regarded crime fiction writer in America.


A novelist, storyteller, and naturally curious amateur historian, Tom’s new three-volume collection, TALL TALES FROM THE HIGH PLAINS & BEYOND, features more than 180 true stories featuring characters and events of the Old West, crafted with a fictional technique that drops readers into the middle of the action. 
For a FREE SAMPLER of all three volumes, fill in your name and address at the top of the sidebar to the right.
If you enjoyed the story above, please share it with your friends. Rediscover the Historical West!

9 comments to Ross Macdonald, Master of Mystery Fiction

  • Judy

    What do you think is the best ever Ross Macdonald book?

  • Tough questions, Judy. But I liked “The Goodbye Look” for the way it tackled dysfunctional family secrets and a crime decades old. Lots of twists and turns.

  • I came across your website while researching Ross Macdonald and trying to find who coined him as a part of the Holy Trinity of American Crime Writers. I must admit…I got completely side-tracked as I started browsing through your website. It’s very well done. And, to top it off…I’m from Houston as well. Great city! I just signed up for your newsletter and look forward to getting them. Thank you for a great site.

    Oh, yes. I did find some of the information I was looking for about Ross Macdonald. He’s part of an art journal that I’m doing on favorite authors.

  • Hi Vickie–thanks so much for the kind words and welcome aboard. Are you planning something on Ross Macdonald? If so. Please let us know. Thanks again.

  • This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.

  • Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.

  • In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels. Some of these appear in quite a few of the Archers. In time I hope to post the results of reading through each of the books individually while searching for these ‘repeaters’.

  • Elizabeth–Fascinating list. Let us know your conclusions, if any.

  • Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through. In the novels that most critics and scholars seem to feel comprise the mature Macdonald style – The Galton Case through The Blue Hammer – the reader is constantly being thrown off the scent this way.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>