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ROSS MACDONALD (1915-1983)

Ross Macdonald was the intellectual of American detective fiction, an honours graduate with a doctorate in literature, and a master of the simile. He might also be called the poet of the dysfunctional family, the abandoned child, and the sins of the father bearing fruit in later generations. His peers gave Macdonald almost every honour the genre has to offer-including the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master award, the Gold Dagger of the British Crime Writers, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Private Eye Writers of America, and the Popular Culture Association's Award for Excellence.

Macdonald was born as Kenneth Millar, an only child, in Los Gatos, California. The family moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. There the father abandoned his wife and child when the latter was three, and the boy spent his formative years living with various relatives. His first story was published when he was a teenage student in Ontario. The same edition of the magazine published a story by another student, Margaret Sturm. The two were married after his graduation from college.

As Kenneth Millar, Macdonald wrote short fiction and four novels, which gained little attention, before inventing Lew Archer in The Moving Target in 1949. Since his wife, Margaret Millar, had already established herself as an author, he published The Moving Target under the name John Macdonald. To avoid confusion with the writer John D. MacDonald, he then wrote as John Ross Macdonald and, beginning in 1956, used only the pen name Ross Macdonald.

Macdonald's protagonist, Archer, is a private investigator in the line of Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. In him, Spade's hardedged, cryptic cynicism and Marlowe's moral romanticism are replaced with a sort of sympathetic applied psychology. Archer finds his solutions to crimes less in the physical evidence of bloodstains, hairs, and footprints than in the damaged lives of the victim's family.

In many of Macdonald's books, the violence under investigation is traced back a generation or two to a family abandonment or betrayal. One thinks of Macdonald's own life and remembers that he once said that the fictional sleuth is the author's way of dealing with emotional material too hard to handle otherwise. Whatever the driving force behind his work, it opened the gates to more and better psychological detective fiction.

Guilt-Edged Blonde, a typical Macdonald story, gives us a crime in a dysfunctional family and a look at the skill with language that made the author famous. The man who meets Archer's plane "wore a stained tan windbreaker, baggy slacks, a hat as squashed and dubious as his face." More typical of Macdonald's style, his eyes were "dark and evasive, moving here and there as if to avoid getting hurt. He had been hurt often and badly, I guessed." Only Chandler could have said it better.

Small Homicide | The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories | Guilt-Edged Blonde