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Ross Macdonald, Redivivus?

Robert Lance Snyder


Ross Macdonald, the author of eighteen Lew Archer novels in the 1950s through the 1970s, seems to be undergoing a revival of interest. After a definitive biography appeared in 1999, the Library of America, a sure benchmark of literary recognition, released in 2015 the first of three volumes devoted to his fiction; the same year saw the publication of his letters to and from Eudora Welty; and in 2016 Fantagraphics Books issued Macdonald’s marathon interviews with Paul Nelson. During his lifetime this author of detective fiction had both ardent champions and occasional detractors, but an examination of The Doomsters (1958), The Galton Case (1959), The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), and The Goodbye Look (1969) reinforces the judgment of Bernard A. Schopen, a scholar writing four years before Macdonald’s death, that his work “fully deserves evaluation as literature” and “purposeful art,” not least because of his trenchant critique of the American Dream.

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1Beginning in 2015, the creator of fictional private detective Lew Archer would seem to have found a new audience. In that year Library of America released the first of three volumes featuring a total of eleven novels by Ross Macdonald. On another front Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan, the latter having already published in 1999 an authoritative biography of the prolific California writer, coedited a 568-page compilation of the letters exchanged by Kenneth Millar (Macdonald’s real name) and Eudora Welty between 1970 and 1982. Fantagraphics Books then issued in 2016 a lavishly illustrated compilation of Macdonald’s marathon interviews with Paul Nelson in 1976. Whether all this attention signals a resurgence of interest in the author widely deemed Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s successor remains to be seen, but the flurry of attention recalls Macdonald’s “discovery” some fifty years ago. During the early 1970s, when the academic establishment was beginning to realize that popular culture just might constitute a legitimate focus of intellectual scrutiny, the Santa Barbara-based novelist came into the limelight indirectly by some notable arbiters of literary recognition. A ground for reappraisal was laid by Michael Holquist, Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University and an authority on Mikhail Bakhtin, who in 1971 published an article titled “Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction” that drew on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman and, to a lesser extent, Jorge Luis Borges’s ficciones to argue for the genre’s legitimacy. This development was fairly unsurprising, given the canonicity of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), but it should be recalled that before the 1970s Edmund Wilson, Jacques Barzun, and other proponents of what F. R. Leavis exalted in The Great Tradition (1948) had cultivated a highbrow disdain for anything that smacked of the demagogic. A sea-change then occurred. Possibly as a reaction to postmodernist theorizing at the time and its debatable implications of a surrender to nihilism in the aesthetic sphere, some leading voices from the groves of academe fessed up to their enjoyment of detective fiction as a guilty pleasure. Among them was formidable Geoffrey Hartman, also of Yale, who in a highly equivocal New York Review of Books piece used Macdonald as a springboard for addressing “The Mystery of Mysteries.”

2Positing at the outset that the genre “has always been a form in which appalling facts are made to fit a rational or moral pattern,” Hartman averred that its “conservative cast… is a puzzle.” What this critic objected to in a kind of literature he apparently enjoyed was its alleged tendency toward reductionism. “Rather than examining a problem” as in Oedipus Rex or the Book of Job, he asserted, “popular mysteries are devoted to solving” it (31). Modern detective novels in particular were supposedly too preoccupied with fixing blame. Although Hartman acknowledged that “Macdonald’s characters… are more credible than Chandler’s” because of their psychological complexity (32), he yet claimed that “the trouble with the detective novel is not that it is moral but that it is moralistic” (33). As such, he said in so many words, it was adolescent and needed to grow up. Although Hartman’s essay hardly venerated Macdonald, it had the effect of conferring on him a kind of disreputable respectability within a literary mode that continued to remain under suspicion.

3What disappoints in this commentary is its blithe assumption that the novel of detection is inherently preachy rather than genuinely moral. It is difficult to know how to respond to such a sweeping indictment except by presenting evidence to the contrary. In what follows I will be discussing some of Macdonald’s strongest work—The Doomsters (1958), The Galton Case (1959), The Far Side of the Dollar (1965), and The Goodbye Look (1969)—in order to challenge the idea of his being either a facile or moralistic author.

4Two defenses of his practice in fiction that Macdonald made by way of differentiating himself from Chandler are germane here. The first is a letter of 28 August 1952 to his publisher Alfred A. Knopf explaining why he did not think that the revised manuscript of his Meet Me at the Morgue (1953) would profit from being more Chandleresque. Asserting for the first of many times in his career that he aspired to “write ‘popular’ novels which will not be inferior to ‘serious’ novels” (863), Macdonald explained that his subject was “human error, and the ambivalence of motive.” The rejection of a “black and white [moral] classification” took him beyond what he viewed as Chandler’s simplistic indictment of “the evilness of evil” (864, 862). Noteworthy in this regard is that a year earlier in The Way Some People Die (1951) Macdonald had pilloried such Manicheanism in his depiction of a rigged wrestling match at a gangster-run arena featuring a “weekly battle between right and wrong” (104). The second framework derives from his 1967 essay titled “The Writer as Detective Hero.” After stating that “Archer was created from the inside out” and that “I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me” (866), Macdonald signaled his veneration for Hammett by observing that Sam Spade was “submerged and struggling in tragic life” whereas Chandler’s “detective-as-redeemer is a backward step in the direction of sentimental romance, and an over-simplified world of good guys and bad guys” (870). The Doomsters, he added, “marked a fairly clean break with the Chandlerian tradition” and “freed [him] to make [his] own approach to the crimes and sorrows of life” (873).

5Before I pivot to that novel, a preliminary sketch of Archer as a fictional projection may be useful. Most of the few background details available about him are mentioned in The Moving Target (1949), the first narrative devoted to his exploits. There readers learn that Macdonald’s private eye is a former cop, that he was briefly married, that during World War II he served in Army Intelligence, that he is approaching age forty, and that he is given to laconic quips when dealing with slow-witted people or self-important bureaucrats. The seventeen ensuing Archer novels add some details to this Gestalt, including his empathy for victims of psychological abuse, but otherwise there is only limited embellishment. Particularly instructive, then, is one passage in The Moving Target when a client’s stepdaughter asks why Archer devotes himself to detective work. Explaining that when he became a policeman in 1935 he believed evil to be “a quality some people were born with, like a harelip,” Archer says that at the time he sought to “find those people and put them away. But evil isn’t so simple. Everybody has it in him, and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things. Environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend” (109) In subsequent narratives we learn that Archer left the Long Beach force because he refused to accept bribes, but the more important point is that he chooses operational independence as one who has discovered that good and evil are not hypostatic attributes. This recognition suggests that Macdonald’s depiction of his protagonist’s experiences is far from being reductive.

1. The Doomsters: The Ouroboros of Guilt

  • 1 Noting Archer’s comment in The Moving Target that “evil isn’t so simple” (109), L. L. Lee writes th (...)

6The novel’s title alludes to Thomas Hardy’s “Hap,” included in Wessex Poems (1898), the final couplet of which reads: “These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.” The two immediately preceding lines indicate that “Crass Casualty” and “dicing Time” are the “Doomsters.” Macdonald deploys the word four times toward the end of his narrative to suggest the idea of what one character calls “evil fates” (595; see also 627, 635, 638), but while Macdonald may concede the theological premise of Original Sin he puts no stock in ancestral curses.1 Instead he insists upon individual accountability given the universality of guilt, which he likens to the ouroboros in ancient iconography: “The circuit of guilty time was too much like a snake with its tail in its mouth, consuming itself…. We were all guilty. We had to learn to live with it” (648). Before Archer makes this case on the novel’s last page, he reflects in the preceding chapter:

I was an ex-cop, and the words came hard. I had to say them, though, if I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life with the old black-and-white picture, the idea that there were just good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out….
It was a very comforting idea, and bracing to the ego. For years I’d been using it to justify my own activities, fighting fire with fire and violence with violence, running on fool’s errands while the people died: a slightly earthbound Tarzan in a slightly paranoid jungle. Landscape with figure of a hairless ape. (638)

7The last trope returns us, appropriately enough given the ouroboros symbolism, to the text’s opening sentences where Archer confides that “I was dreaming about a hairless ape who lived in a cage by himself. His trouble was that people were always trying to get in. It kept the ape in a state of nervous tension” (437). The Darwinistic image, nine years before the popularity of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967), ironizes Lew Archer’s sense of himself as an atavistic throwback constantly besieged by other people and their problems. In fact, familiar as he is with “guilt’s chameleon forms” ever since his regretted divorce (438), he welcomes these intrusions into his privacy because they remind him of a world beyond his own isolation. At The Doomsters’ outset Archer thus receives hospitably a young stranger named Carl Hallman who knocks on his kitchen door at daybreak. Unaware of the morass of family secrets into which this encounter will soon plunge him, Macdonald’s detective intuits that “it was one of those times when you have to decide between your own convenience and the unknown quantity of another man’s trouble” (438).

  • 2 Mildred’s account of this forced abortion is grotesque: “I went along with [Alicia Hallman] to Dr. (...)

8Peter Wolfe, the earliest critic to discuss Macdonald’s oeuvre in depth, points out that this novelist draws freely on Sigmund Freud as an “idea-bank” (22), especially Freud’s concept of the Oedipal “family romance.” The Doomsters is the first of its author’s novels to develop this theme fully. Twenty-four-year-old Carl Hallman, one of two brothers who stand to inherit their father’s five-million-dollar citrus ranch, wrongly believes himself responsible for killing his overbearing father and, before then, of contributing to his mother’s supposed suicide. Haunted by introjected guilt and committed to a state psychiatric hospital for treatment of manic depression, he escapes with the help of a fellow patient, Tom Rica, before in his confusion stealing Archer’s car to reestablish contact with his wife Mildred near the family estate. What then ensues is a hodgepodge of developments: ten-year-older brother Jerry, married to an unfaithful divorcée named Zinnie, is killed by two shots in the back; the escaped Carl, having been spotted in the vicinity, becomes the focus of an intensive manhunt as the assumed perpetrator; Dr. Charles Grantland, family doctor in the nearby fictional (and ironically named) town of Purissima, is having an adulterous affair with Zinnie Hallman; corrupt Sheriff Duane Ostervelt, a recent widower, is forcing his lascivious attentions on Carl’s wife; and Mildred Hallman is doing her best to cope with an alcoholic mother while shielding her husband from a posse of trigger-happy deputies. These lines of plot complication begin to arc toward a resolution when Archer, whom Mildred first impressed as having “the intense grave innocence of a serious child” (512), discovers that Dr. Grantland has been deviously trying to bring about the Hallman family tragedies. Only in The Doomsters’ denouement is it revealed that, although Grantland is guilty of egregious malpractice, a morally exhausted Mildred is responsible for four murders as revenge for matriarch Alicia Hallman’s forcing the family physician to abort Mildred’s premaritally conceived child.2 In penultimate Chapters 33-34 devoted to Mildred’s confession, Macdonald does not whitewash the fact that her initial motivation was money in ensnaring Carl as a husband, but he also makes clear that in truly loving him from the outset of their union her fatalistic belief in vengeful “Doomsters” is misguided.

Mildred was as guilty as a girl could be, but she wasn’t the only one. An alternating current of guilt ran between her and all of us involved with her. Grantland and Rica, Ostervelt, and me…. Even the Hallman family, the four victims, had been in a sense the victimizers, too. The current of guilt flowed in a closed circuit if you traced it far enough.
….I was almost ready to believe in her doomsters…. Perhaps they existed in the sense that men and women were their own doomsters, the secret authors of their own destruction. You had to be very careful what you dreamed. (638)

9What Archer realizes is that we are all enmeshed in an ouroboros-like parabola of guilt, one that makes us individually responsible for what happens to others given our own errancies.

  • 3 The novel’s last paragraph reinforces Archer’s wistful contrition for his failed marriage: “For onc (...)

10The moral integrity of this insight in Macdonald’s novel is tied to detective Lew Archer’s recognition of his failure ten years ago as a mentor to Tom Rica. Upon learning that the heroin-addicted Rica escaped from the state psychiatric hospital with Carl Hallman, Archer recalls a time when “Tom had played his part in the postwar rebellion that turned so many boys against authority. But he had been one of the salvageable ones, I thought.” Accordingly, Macdonald’s private eye helped Rica get probation after his conviction for car theft and “taught him a little boxing and shooting, tried to teach him some of the other things a man should know” (459). Having learned of his former protégé’s subsequent history, Archer feels pain for “the loss… of a self I had once imagined” and admits that the memory of his failure with Tom Rica “was bitter and obscure, mixed with the ash-blonde memory of a woman I’d once been married to” (523, 539).3 In the final pages of The Doomsters its narrator is forced to come to a reckoning with his past self vis-à-vis the teenager he took under his wing: “I’d been a street boy in my time, gang-fighter, thief, poolroom lawyer. It was a fact I didn’t like to remember. It didn’t fit in with the slick polaroid picture I had of myself as the rising young man of mystery” (647). With the demystification of his past self-imposture and his acceptance of partial responsibility for the wounded person that Tom Rica became, Lew Archer makes a significant stride forward in terms of accountability. This development suggests that even early in his Archer series Macdonald is pushing well beyond the hard-boiled tradition in American crime fiction.

11The point deserves emphasis partly because of an essay titled “The Detective Detected: From Sophocles to Ross Macdonald” that Max Byrd contributed to The Yale Review in 1974. Before he left academia to publish historical novels and California-based crime thrillers, Byrd discussed the Aristotelian peripeteia that comes at the end of the classic detective story. Citing modern examples of such Sophoclean reversals as Henry James’s The Aspern Papers (1888) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), he asks why the possible variations are “so severely limited” in subsequent popular fiction by Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald (74). The answer, Byrd suggests, is that these later works show only, and he cites Macdonald’s The Chill (1963) as an example, a contemporary society “riddled with divorce, graft, disorder” that “Lew Archer wants to make clean again,” purportedly not recognizing his own interpellation in that fabric of American decay (81). Although not as inclined as Hartman two years earlier to proclaim the mid-twentieth-century “mystery story” an adolescent genre that needed to grow up, Byrd in his own way either neglects or discredits Archer’s anagnorisis at the end of Macdonald’s 1958 book. This critic’s conclusion, then, that “the detective has not yet detected himself” is considerably less than persuasive (83).

2. The Galton Case: “Except Human Beings”

  • 4 For the information presented in this paragraph I have relied on Tom Nolan’s biography of Macdonald (...)

12Archer’s final insight in The Doomsters—“We were all guilty. We had to learn to live with it”—was rooted in a personal tragedy that befell Millar and his novelist wife Margaret. On the night of 23 February 1956 their only child Linda, then sixteen years old, was responsible while inebriated for the hit-and-run death of Ernest Dal Zuffo, one of three eighth-grade friends who were walking home from their school’s basketball tournament. Linda’s psychological problems, which subsequently caused her to attempt suicide and vanish over state lines with male strangers, continued while she was on court-ordered probation. Caught in the tensions of her home, both parents being of different minds about her rearing and sometimes inclined to rancorous confrontations, Linda was undoubtedly scarred by the family dynamics. From this background she escaped by marrying a computer engineer in 1961 and bearing him a son nicknamed Jimmie. When she died in her sleep of a Seconal-induced stroke on 4 November 1970, Linda Millar Pagnusat was thirty-one and her son seven years of age. The lingering pain of his daughter’s wounded life can be gauged from the fact that it was the only subject Macdonald refused to discuss in his wide-ranging interviews with Nelson in 1976 (see 60).4

  • 5 According to Cassie Hildreth, a distant cousin who was once in love with him and ever since has ser (...)
  • 6 Justification for the simile used here can be found in a letter dated 4 April 1973 from Kenneth Mil (...)

13Early in Macdonald’s next novel, when a domineering multimillionaire widow in her seventies named Maria Galton hires Lew Archer to find her long-missing son Anthony, she says: “He must be somewhere. Nothing is lost in the universe.” Thinks Archer to himself, “Except human beings” (667). That plangent reflection anticipates a recurrent Macdonald theme: the delusion that love, especially when buttressed by wealth, can ensure immortality through lineal descendants. In The Galton Case its eponymous matriarch is prepared to make that wager by commissioning Archer to track down her only child from whom she was estranged in 1936 when he stole valuables from his father’s safe and decamped with Theodora Gavin, whom his mother denounces as “a cheap little gold-digger,” to find his way in life as a writer (668). Midway through the novel Archer discovers that the long-missing Tony Galton, aka John Brown,5 was brutally murdered decades ago in Luna Bay, his only remains being a decapitated skeleton unearthed when bulldozers were excavating the area for a new highway. Well before then, however, Macdonald introduces other characters whose lives past and present bear tangentially on the mystery of Maria Galton’s missing grandson. These figures include family attorney Gordon Sable and his emotionally fragile wife Alice, their unlikely live-in factotum Peter Culligan, and a dedicated family physician named August Howell. As is typical of Macdonald’s highly convoluted plots, which radiate like waves whose collision generates an undertow,6 the histories of these seemingly ancillary characters are shown to bear on the central mystery. Culligan, for example, was once the ne’er-do-well husband of a since-remarried woman, Marian Matheson, who formerly worked as a nurse for John Brown and Theodora Gavin’s’s newborn son in Luna Bay. When Culligan learns that the young Depression-era couple is in possession of money and jewels, he years later cultivates an exploitive friendship with Galton/Brown’s son in a small town near Windsor, Ontario, before having an adulterous affair with mentally unstable Alice Sable, who has racked up over $60,000 in gambling debt to a Reno mobster with whom he is associated. That entanglement leads to Culligan’s murder on Sable’s front lawn just as Archer is beginning his search for Tony Galton. What the private detective soon realizes, as Macdonald writes in The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), is that “It’s all one case” (208), a variation of which line appears in The Galton Case (770).

  • 7 The concept reappears in Macdonald’s next-to-last Archer novel. In Sleeping Beauty the mother of Ha (...)

14Akin to the Nietzschean concept of recurrence that informs Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History (1954),7 the pattern of Macdonald’s 1959 novel suggests not a universe of arbitrary Doomsters but instead the consequences deriving from a generational past. By the time he married in his late forties, Mr. Galton, driven by greed, had exploited others’ misfortune by buying up vast tracts of unproductive farmland under which lay large deposits of crude oil. From the wells on this property his widow receives a huge income, enabling her to maintain a life of privilege in Arroyo Park, an enclave of plutocrats who “didn’t know there had been a war. Their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had won it for them; death and taxes were all they had to cope with” (660). Despite this passage’s suggestion of ancestral wealth and established status, the Galtons belong to the nouveau riche, exactly as does the Hallman dynasty in The Doomsters whose founders clawed their way into prominence by annexing adjacent citrus groves. Given this saga of the American Dream’s pursuit beginning in the Gilded Age, a tale reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Macdonald’s favorite novel, what is sacrificed for its realization is the solidarity of filial ties. Only in the fictive present of The Galton Case, then, does the family’s surviving head, desperate for an ongoing line of descent, cling to the conviction that a twenty-two-year-old hailing from Ontario who looks uncannily like Anthony is indeed her long-lost grandson.

15Here a series of events reveals how Macdonald is tapping into a mythology that plays off the iconic figure of Huckleberry Finn. When Archer first meets John Brown, Jr. a third of the way into the novel, he is more or less persuaded by the testimony of elderly Dr. George Dineen, who presided at the boy’s birth and is now befriending him, as well as by the young man’s account of his first sixteen years of life that he is possibly the legitimate Galton scion. When the private eye learns that the young man’s birth mother supposedly consigned him at age four to an orphanage in Crystal Springs, Ohio, he is further inclined to credit the story. Upon Brown, Jr.’s describing how with the help of a kindly disposed surrogate father named Gabriel Lindsay he graduated from the University of Michigan with aspirations in professional acting, the normally skeptical Archer accepts this version of a person’s transcending his roots. Later, though, his credence undergoes a check when background details lead Archer to an impoverished boardinghouse in Pitt, Ontario, to which he is steered by Ada Reichler, an affluent Detroit auto dealer’s daughter in love with John Lindsay as she knew him. When Reichler hears about his subsequent life, she tells Archer: “It sounds like one of Grimm’s fairy tales. The goatherd turns out to be the prince in disguise. Or like Oedipus” (809). John, she adds, “had an Oedipus theory of his own, that Oedipus killed his father because he banished him from the kingdom” (810). Archer learns next that Galton/Brown was raised as Theodore Fredericks by his birth mother, who remarried and relocated after her first husband’s death. The boy’s sadistic stepfather regularly abused the boy, leaving his back cross-hatched with hundreds of white scars “like fading cuneiform cuts” (852), before Brown at age sixteen knifed Fredericks in the abdomen and fled to Ann Arbor, Michigan. All these discoveries cause Archer to question whether the twenty-two-year-old is in fact the true Galton heir, a doubt reinforced by the Arroyo Park matriarch’s prompt acceptance of Theodore Fredericks as her bona fide grandson, but a lateral plot development strengthens his skepticism about the reliability of appearances. Gordon Sable, the family attorney who first hired him, is found to have been guilty of murdering Peter Culligan and making his psychologically vulnerable wife Alice believe that she was responsible for the homicide. By the novel’s end what counts most is not the search for a missing heir but instead Macdonald’s unraveling of the morally intricate and interconnected web of fallibility in which everyone is enmeshed.

16Ten years after his 1959 novel Macdonald published an essay titled “Writing The Galton Case” that explained why he considered the eighth Lew Archer novel his “most ambitious and personal work so far” (886). The text’s opening paragraph stakes out his aesthetic commitment:

Detective story writers are often asked why we devote our talents to working in a mere popular convention. One answer is that there may be more to our use of the convention than meets the eye. I tried to show in an earlier piece [“The Writer as Detective Hero”] how the literary detective has provided writers since Poe with a disguise, a kind of welder’s mask enabling us to handle dangerously hot material. (878)

17Such material included not only personal tragedy like his teenage daughter Linda’s troubled life, in connection with which Millar underwent a year of psychotherapy, but also insights gained along the way after his father abandoned the fledgling family and Millar’s struggling mother placed her son for adoption, like John Brown, Jr. in The Galton Case, at age four. By his early teens, according to his own testimony and that of his biographer, Millar had lived in fifty different Canadian residences, most often those of accommodating but emotionally distant relatives. This background could only have instilled a profound sense of parental abandonment. Despite this setback during his formative years Millar, who was born in California in 1915 and thus an American citizen, managed to graduate from the University of Western Ontario before returning to the United States with his wife and young daughter to start doctoral work in English at the University of Michigan. By his early thirties, after a few years of service in the American Navy, Macdonald records in his 1969 essay that this past left him with a “dual citizen’s sense of illegitimacy” (879), deepening his interest in the Oedipus story. “Like the moving chart of an encephalograph,” he observes, “the plot of a novel follows the curve of the mind’s intention,” its characters being partial refractions of the author (881).

3. The Far Side of the Dollar: Heraclitus and Parmenides

18Early in The Chill, the novel that immediately preceded The Far Side of the Dollar, Lew Archer overhears a female undergraduate explaining Zeno’s paradox involving Achilles and the tortoise. Because his “own attempt at college hadn’t worked out” (284), Archer is intrigued enough to buy a book on pre-Socratic philosophy. After reading a chapter on Zeno, he turns to another on Heraclitus. “All things flow like a river, he said; nothing abides. Parmenides, on the other hand, believed that nothing ever changed [but] only seemed to. Both views appealed to me” (443). Encapsulated here is a key to the worldview of Macdonald’s private eye. Although keenly aware of human fallibility and people’s failure to learn from their mistakes, Archer takes on case after case in the hope that he will be proven wrong.

19The Far Side of the Dollar, which won the Crime Writers Association’s Gold Dagger Award, is remarkable for its interweaving of both philosophical perspectives. On the one hand the novel captures the pervasive sense that “nothing abides” during the widely chronicled “generation gap” of the counterculture 1960s. Within the narrative several disaffected teenagers register their estrangement from parents who came of age during World War II. When Archer visits the Laguna Perdida School, essentially a high-priced reformatory for allegedly maladjusted teens in southern California, he strikes up a conversation with one of its inmates, Fred Tyndal, who explains that his father, “a big shot in the government,” rather than involving himself in his son’s life remanded him to a corrective facility (517). The same frustration with lack of parental trust is sounded by others in The Far Side of the Dollar. Sixteen-year-old Stella Carlson, the daughter of status-conscious Jay and Rhea Carlson in an exclusive suburb and “one of those youngsters who make you feel like apologizing for the world” (554), bravely defends the integrity of her neighbor friend Tom Hillman, whose father Ralph sent him to Laguna Perdida because of a family crisis the senior Hillman could not handle. Toward the novel’s end, when Tom arraigns his adoptive parents for “phoniness,” which Archer recognizes as “the code of the new generation, at least the ones who were worth anything,” Macdonald records the following exchange.

‘I sometimes think children should be anonymous.’
‘How do you mean, Mr. Archer?’ It was the first time he had called me by my name.
‘I have no plan. I’d just like to change the emphasis slightly. People are trying so hard to live through their children. And the children keep trying so hard to live up to their parents, or live them down. Everybody’s living through or for or against somebody else. It doesn’t make too much sense, and it isn’t working too well.’ (721)

20Earlier in the novel, thinking about the predicament of youngsters like Stella and Tom, Archer reflects that “Generation after generation had to start from scratch and learn the world over again. It changed so rapidly that children couldn’t learn from their parents or parents from their children. The generations were like alien tribes islanded in time” (649). Macdonald’s narrator is clearly aware of a dramatic change during the early 1960s when baby-boomers were rejecting the received values and orientation of their progenitors.

21Counterbalancing this outlook in The Far Side of the Dollar is the Parmenidean view that “nothing ever changed” but “only seemed to,” reminiscent of the old adage that the more things change the more they remain the same. Emphasized in this context is a patriarchal order’s warping of the young, male and female alike. The most deranged example of this syndrome is the father of secondary characters Harold and Mike Harley. While growing up on a hardscrabble farm in Pocatello, Idaho, the two brothers were routinely abused with a loop of knotted wire that left their backs scarred with lacerations “like hieroglyphs recording history” (620). When Archer tries to interview Mr. Harley, whose wife explains that by such treatment her husband “was only trying to save [their sons] from the Devil” (640), the old man drives him off the property with a pitchfork. At the opposite end of America’s sociocultural spectrum a more nuanced example of patriarchy’s crippling impact involves Elaine Hillman, the frail but adder-tongued wife of Ralph Hillman. Faced with a ransom demand of $25,000 for the return of their seventeen-year-old son Tom, the wealthy couple soon reveal the fissures in their marriage, although in Archer’s opinion the “joint handling of their anxiety was almost professional, as if they were actors improvising a tragedy before an audience of one” (535). Subsequently he learns that after Elaine graduated from Radcliffe College her Beacon Street pedigree led her to be “very puritanical about sex” (576; see also 751), causing her nearly twenty years later to commit two murders in a failed attempt to conceal the fact that their adopted son is actually her husband’s love-child by a former mistress. Macdonald’s presentation of this case history emphasizes Archer’s early intuition that “time was repeating itself and would go on endlessly repeating itself, as it does in hell” (626). In the novel’s final paragraph Elaine Hillman, conversant with such figures as Antigone, Jocasta, and Eurydice in classical mythology, commits suicide and preempts judicial prosecution by fatally stabbing herself with a pair of steel knitting needles. Once again the past is more than mere prelude to the present.

22If Macdonald’s novel emphasizes time’s fixity, the view that “nothing ever changed,” it also includes a relationship of a different order involving Archer’s reunion with a woman named Susanna Drew whom he first met ten years ago. Back then she as an up-and-coming script writer at Warner’s “picked my brains for what I knew about people, and I picked hers for what she knew about books…. The physical thing came more slowly, as it often does when it promises to be real. I think we tried to force it” (598). Susanna’s role in the main plot is twofold: first, at age twenty she was briefly the mistress of Ralph Hillman; and, second, he had persuaded her in 1945 to be a caretaker for Carol Harley, who was then pregnant with Hillman’s illegitimate son Tom. Upon Archer’s encountering Susanna Drew again, he admits that “Something about her dark intensity bit into me as deep as memory” (603), and he recalls that like himself “she had a marriage which didn’t take” (598). Although drawn to one another now in their forties, both hedge their mutual attraction when Ralph’s role in Susanna’s earlier life comes to light. Later in The Far Side of the Dollar, when Archer presses Drew for details about her past liaison with Hillman, he defends his dogged line of questioning by saying that “Life hangs together in one piece. Everything is connected with everything else. The problem is to find the connections.” This of course, as Susanna points out sardonically, is Archer’s “mission in life” (701), but even though they laugh at her riposte both realize that the past constitutes an insurmountable barrier to a renewal of their former relationship.

  • 8 Kreyling’s sixth chapter, “‘I Wish They All Could Be California Girls’: Archer in the 1960s,” elabo (...)
  • 9 Although Leonard Cassuto’s discussion of Macdonald’s fiction does not mention this character, who i (...)

23Positing that Macdonald’s mysteries are “first-rate novels which tell as well as anything in our literature what it is like to live in the American Dream” during the mid-twentieth century (8), Richard Snodgrass observed in 1986 that in the course of his investigations an emotionally wounded Archer is looking for love after his failed marriage. In the early novels Macdonald’s detective is allegedly drawn to blond “dream girls” (13),8 but beginning with The Far Side of the Dollar he takes an interest in intelligent women his own age such as Susanna Drew. Given Ginny Fablon’s ability to dissimulate in Black Money (1965), such California goddesses tend to disappear in Macdonald’s final novels. In The Goodbye Look, for example, Archer goes to bed with Moira Smitheram, the unhappy wife of a self-absorbed psychiatrist, commenting that “We merged our lonelinesses… in something less than love but sweeter than self” (571). The Underground Man (1971) presents a more lugubrious Archer who, now in his early fifties and living in a second-floor apartment, sees in the mirror a record of his past in “the marks of erosion under [his] eyes, the mica glints of white and gray in [his] twenty-four-hour beard” (658). Nothing much changes in the next novel, Sleeping Beauty (1973). Although there he is sentimentally fond of twenty-five-year-old Laurel Lennox,9 Archer sleeps with Elaine Somerville, a woman his own age and again an unhappy wife. Of this tryst he later says that it “had been a one-time thing, not without passion but without consequences. Except that I would never forget Elizabeth” (220). The template changes, however, in The Blue Hammer (1976) when Archer enters into an ongoing sexual relationship with journalist Betty Jo Siddon, “a level-eyed brunette of about thirty” who “was well-shaped but rather awkward in her movements, as if she weren’t quite at home in the world” (43). Although he “hoped she wasn’t getting ready to fall in love, especially not with me” (84), the penultimate chapter closes with this bedroom scene: “Betty yawned and went to sleep again. I lay awake and watched her face emerging in the slow dawn. After a while I could see the steady blue pulse in her temple, the beating of the silent hammer that meant that she was alive. I hoped that the blue hammer would never stop” (261). Besides signaling a likely endurance of this union, the passage implies that conventionally romantic attachments are not all they are cracked up to be. What counts instead is identification with the simple humanity and otherness of those who are not “quite at home in the world.”

4. The Goodbye Look: “Everything Matters”

24Something like that depth of understanding is broached in The Instant Enemy (1968) when Archer insists that “Everything matters” (412). The context is important. While at Stephen and Gerda Hackett’s mansion, Archer walks through a gallery of paintings by Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, and Pablo Picasso. A former art specialist in Munich, Gerda pauses before a Klee canvas that “showed a man in a geometrical maze, and seemed to show that the man and the maze were continuous with each other” (373). Looking at the painting again, Archer “found that it grew on me. The man was in the maze; the maze was in the man” (374). In the same novel oil baroness Mrs. Ruth Marburg, the Hackett family matriarch, gives Archer a postdated check for $100,000 to work on her behalf. Later, after he has discovered her sordid past and complicity in several murders, she attempts to bribe him with a million dollars for his silence. Archer of course declines and in the novel’s final paragraph tears up her previous check into small pieces, allowing the confetti to drift down from his office window on “the potheads and the acid heads, draft dodgers and dollar chasers, swingers and walking wounded, idiot saints, hard cases, foolish virgins” (437). That gesture by a proudly independent man who charges $100 per diem plus expenses reveals, of course, his disdain for those who use their wealth in an attempt to suborn him, but the catalogue of all those thronging the street outside his office suggests that Archer is very much in the minority. As someone who believes that “everything and everybody are connected by chains of circumstantial responsibility” (Cassuto 155), Macdonald’s detective refuses to be compromised by Mammonism.

25Better than anywhere else in the corpus these motifs coalesce in The Goodbye Look, accounting for why upon its release the New York Times Book Review gave front-page coverage to William Goldman’s piece that described the Archer books as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” Such praise in light of Macdonald’s 1969 work was warranted. The Goodbye Look’s concise opening chapter, for instance, is a masterpiece of prolepsis. In the reception room of silver-maned lawyer John Truttwell, who wishes to retain Archer’s services on behalf of well-heeled clients Larry and Irene Chalmers, he bides his time by studying its oil paintings of the region, which strike him as “subtle advertisements” for southern California. A chatty pink-haired receptionist then says, apropos of nothing, that she is really a model whose second husband has just run out on her. Hearing this brief and unsolicited story, Archer muses: “It was mercy she needed” (443). Although seemingly a puzzling comment for Macdonald to include, it keynotes a major theme in the novel. When questioned over dinner about why he chose the career he did, Archer replies:

‘The life is its own reward…. I like to move into people’s lives and then move out again. Living with one set of people in one place used to bore me.’
‘That isn’t your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don’t you admit it?’
‘I have a secret passion for mercy,’ I said. ‘But justice is what keeps happening to people.’ (549)

26The dialogue ennobles Macdonald’s serial protagonist, of course, but only enough to set him apart from otherwise well-intentioned men like Truttwell who in retaining Archer on behalf of the Chalmerses, his neighbors as well as clients, reveals his envy in remarking that Larry Chalmers’ deceased mother “left him a substantial nest egg, and the bull market blew it up into millions” (444). That starting capital, it is later disclosed, is over $500,000 discovered on 1 July 1945 to have been embezzled by cashier Eldon Swain from Pasadena Occidental Bank, the president of which was Samuel Rawlinson who subsequently became involved with widow Estelle Chalmers. How the bundles of purloined cash found their way into the safe at her residence is explained in The Goodbye Look’s coda, but that is the least of the text’s concerns.

  • 10 As early as The Goodbye Look’s fourth chapter Archer suspects a “MacGuffin” when he states, “I was (...)

27As though to hint at that fact about his narrative, Macdonald begins with a Hitchcockian “MacGuffin.” After a burglary at Larry and Irene Chalmers’ mansion, Truttwell on their behalf hires Archer to retrieve a gold box, the only thing that was stolen.10 Irene haltingly explains that the Florentine box was a gift to her deceased mother-in-law from an admirer after her husband’s death and that Estelle used it as a repository for her son Larry’s letters when he supposedly was a Navy pilot overseas during World War II. These are also the same letters from which Mr. Chalmers, who sports a “square-cut, clipped brown mustache” and walks “with a kind of military precision” (453), had been in the habit of reading excerpts to his and Irene’s now twenty-four-year-old son Nick during the latter’s childhood, presumably to instill lessons of masculine bravery. The immediate problem, however, is that the emotionally distraught Nick, after a traumatic episode at age eight, has disappeared from his university apartment, defaulting on mid-year exams, and been seen by his fiancée, Betty Truttwell, in the company of a brassy blonde named Jean Trask who is “old enough to be his mother” (458). Betty has her own challenges, having been raised by an overly protective father after his young wife was killed in a hit-and-run incident after a “burglary in reverse” on 3 July 1945 when a schizoid Larry Chalmers and Irene, née Rita Shepherd, stashed Eldon Swain’s embezzled funds in the safe after highjacking him in San Diego (643). These plot convolutions reinforce Archer’s recognition that “the maze was in the man” and that the victims of such antecedent collusion are usually the next generation.

28Beyond this insight The Goodbye Look includes a bleak vignette of 1940s West Coast culture and its “cover of idealized suburban family life” (Kreyling 136). A home movie taken at a swimming party in San Marino during the summer of 1943 and recovered by John Truttwell from Louise Swain provides graphic evidence of the deviancy behind the idyll of life in the Golden State. Focusing on Jean and Rita as teenage friends performing diving stunts, the film’s mise en scène speaks for itself:

Next came a double dive with Jean on [her father’s] shoulders, and finally a double dive with Rita. As if controlled by a documentary interest, the camera followed the pair as Rita stood spraddled on the diving board, and Eldon Swain inserted his head between her legs and lifted her. Tottering slightly, he carried her out to the end of the board and stood for a long moment with his head projecting from between her thighs like the head of a giant smiling baby being born again.
The two fell off the board together and stayed underwater for what seemed a long time. The eye of the camera looked for them but caught only sparkling surfaces netted with light and underlaid by colored shadows dissolving in the water. (622)

29This display in backyard suburbia is no less prurient for the movie’s capturing a background glimpse of red-haired gardener Randy Shepherd, who soon afterwards panders his daughter Rita to Eldon Swain before the illicit couple absconds for several years to Mexico. A decade or so later Eldon is dead, killed after reportedly molesting his eight-year-old son Nick, and the boy’s birth mother Rita Shepherd has married psychotic Larry Chalmers before they launch a joint campaign of dissemblance under the guise of normalcy. In the novel’s final scene Chalmers is found seated in his father’s swivel chair and attired in a naval commander’s uniform with the blood from his self-slashed throat running down over his row of bogus battle ribbons. Appalled by what his investigation has brought to light, Archer concludes that “When your income passes a certain point you lose touch. All of a sudden the other people look like… expendables” (638). Again his bedrock conviction that “Everything matters” proves a moral anchor in a world of deceptive appearances and bankrupt values.

5. Conclusion

30It is easy to be skeptical of the detective story, or novel of detection, because it is so relentlessly teleological. Starting slowly before expanding in ever-widening circles of incrimination, it presses toward a resolution wherein an underlying pattern will emerge. Unlike “Golden Age” tales of ratiocination by John Dickson Carr and Arthur Conan Doyle that identify in the end a lone perpetrator of a crime, Macdonald’s narratives impugn an entire post-war generation that begot “prodigal daughters” and “abandoned sons” whose plight attests to “sources of rot in the American grain” (Dawidoff). The depth of Macdonald’s seismic soundings he regarded as an extension of Hammett’s agenda in “creating re-presentations and moral criticisms of the American world as well as giving his vision of man in the universe” (Lee 56; italics in original). If readers of his best work credit that judgment, as this essay has argued we should, then the verdict of Bernard A. Schopen, a scholar who winnowed Macdonald’s corpus four years before the novelist’s death, holds as true today as it did in 1979. Maintaining that Macdonald adapted “the detective formula to produce the most significant single body of fiction in the genre” (184), Schopen concluded that his subject’s work “fully deserves evaluation as literature” and “purposeful art” (188). Eight years earlier Eudora Welty registered the same high opinion of Macdonald’s artistry in her New York Times Book Review discussion of The Underground Man, but at about the same time Richard Schickel, Anatole Broyard, and Edmund Crispin faulted Macdonald for his belief in the Aristotelian preeminence of plot, suggesting that his literary stock had been inflated (Sharp 419-20). More often that not, however, such disparagement stemmed from an assumption linked to the “hermeneutic circle” first broached in Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927) and later developed in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Wahrheit und Methode (1960).

31According to this paradigm, interpretation proceeds on the basis of some tacit “fore-understanding” or set of presuppositions. If readers assume, for instance, that Macdonald was attempting to write hard-boiled novels in the tradition of precursors Hammett and Chandler, despite his oft-voiced criticism of the latter and his disavowal of any monolithic allegiance to a “movement,” they will form a horizon of expectation accordingly. These expectations, which may include notions about “genre fiction” as inferior to “serious” or “literary fiction” (see Rosen), will be continually modified during the recursive process of reading, some being affirmed, others being qualified, and still others being rejected outright. That spiraling process, which involves both blindness and insight, to borrow Paul de Man’s terminology, entails a cycle of cumulative decisions about what a text signifies and whether in light of those judgments it warrants respect. Moreover, that process of critical reading compels ongoing readjustments in light of others’ reconstructions of the same work. The history of that engagement, of course, is known as scholarship. The iterative process of any reading act, though, is never untainted by a preliminary horizon of expectation. All this in no way suggests the nullity of indeterminacy; it merely reminds us, instead, of the contingencies of reading and hermeneutics. When even so eminent a critic as Hartman asserts, then, that “the trouble with the detective novel is… that it is moralistic,” it is incumbent on us to balance the evidence with the fiction in question.

32One year after what would prove to be his last novel before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, Ross Macdonald reiterated his firm belief that “popular culture is not and need not be at odds with high culture, any more than the rhythms of walking are at odds with the dance.” As “guardian of the spoken language,” he maintained, popular art “reaffirms our values” amid “new shades and varieties of good and evil” (“Down” 895). In addition to the escalating incidence of irretrievably broken, self-consuming families chronicled in his novels, the toll is symbolized by the forest fires and offshore oil spills that ravage California in, respectively, The Underground Man and Sleeping Beauty. At one point in the former novel Lew Archer is driving toward an outpost called Petroleum City near Vandenberg Air Force Base. Approaching the Yucca Tree Inn there, he hears the strains of western music “like the last wail of a dying frontier” (799). The detail is pure Macdonald. However casually inserted in his narrative, it bespeaks something far greater—namely, the foundering of the American Dream on its own shoals of utopian promise. Dennis Lynds astutely observed in 1986 that “Macdonald brought the detective novel out of the mean streets and into our streets,” showing us “where our daily world and the mean street” converged (123). Although Macdonald has been heralded as an influence by such later writers as diverse as Sara Paretsky, Jonathan Kellerman, Sue Grafton, and James Ellroy, the jury is still out on whether his achievement will be recognized by twenty-first-century readers less attuned than their predecessors to the period consciousness of the 1950s through 1970s. In the interest of an imaginable, more balanced future, one can only hope that they pay attention.

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Byrd, Max. “The Detective Detected: From Sophocles to Ross Macdonald.” The Yale Review, vol. 64, 1974, pp. 72-83.

Cassuto, Leonard. Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories. Columbia UP, 2009.

Dawidoff, Nicholas. “Ross Macdonald, True Detective.” The New Republic, 15 Sept. 2017, Accessed 18 Feb. 2022.

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Oxford UP, 1971.

Goldman, William. “The Finest Series of Detective Novels Ever Written by an American.” Review of The Goodbye Look, by Ross Macdonald. New York Times Book Review, 1 June 1969, pp. 1-2.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “The Mystery of Mysteries.” The New York Review of Books, 18 May 1972, pp. 31-34.

Holquist, Michael. “Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction.” New Literary History, vol. 3, no. 1, 1971, pp. 135-56.

Karydes, Karen Huston. Hard-Boiled Anxiety: The Freudian Desires of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Their Detectives. Secant, 2016.

Kreyling, Michael. The Novels of Ross Macdonald. U of South Carolina P, 2005.

Lee, L. L. “The Art of Ross Macdonald.” South Dakota Review, vol. 24, no. 1, 1986, pp. 55-66.

Lynds, Dennis. “Expanding the Roman Noir: Ross Macdonald’s Legacy to Mystery/Detective Authors.” South Dakota Review, vol. 24, no. 1, 1986, pp. 121-24.

Macdonald, Ross. Black Money. 1965. Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2017, pp. 1-228.

---. The Blue Hammer. Vintage, 1976.

---. The Chill. 1963. Three Novels of the Early 1960s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2016, pp. 253-505.

---. The Doomsters. 1958. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2015, pp. 433-648.

---. “Down These Streets a Mean Man Must Go.” 1977. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2015, pp. 890-96.

---. The Far Side of the Dollar. 1965. Three Novels of the Early 1960s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2016, pp. 507-754.

---. The Galton Case. 1959. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2015, pp. 649-858.

---. The Goodbye Look. 1969. Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2017, pp. 439-647.

---. The Instant Enemy. 1968. Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2017, pp. 229-437.

---. Letter to Alfred A. Knopf. 28 Aug. 1952. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2015, pp. 861-65.

---. The Moving Target. 1949. Vintage, 1998.

---. Sleeping Beauty. Knopf, 1973.

---. The Underground Man. 1971. Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2017, pp. 649-881.

---. The Way Some People Die. 1951. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2015, pp. 1-212.

---. “The Writer as Detective Hero.” 1967. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2015, pp. 866-77.

---. “Writing The Galton Case.” 1969. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2015, pp. 878-89.

---. The Zebra-Striped Hearse. 1962. Three Novels of the Early 1960s, edited by Tom Nolan, Library of America, 2016, pp. 1-252.

Marrs, Suzanne, and Tom Nolan, editors. Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald. Arcade, 2015.

Nelson, Paul, and Kevin Avery, with Jeff Wong. It’s All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives. Fantagraphics, 2016.

Nolan, Tom. Ross Macdonald: A Biography. Scribner, 1999.

---, editor. Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels. Library of America, 2017.

---. Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s. Library of America, 2015.

---. Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s. Library of America, 2016.

Rosen, Jeremy. “Literary Fiction and the Genres of Genre Fiction.” Post45, 7 Aug. 2018, no pag.

Schopen, Bernard A. “From Puzzles to People: The Development of the American Detective Novel.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 7, no. 2, 1979, pp. 175-89.

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. 405-26.

Snodgrass, Richard. “Down These Streets, I Mean, a Man Must Go.” South Dakota Review, vol. 24, no. 1, 1986, pp. 7-27.

Weinman, Sarah. “Linda, Interrupted.” CrimeReads, 24 Nov. 2020, Accessed 18 Jan. 2022.

Welty, Eudora. “The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of.” Review of The Underground Man, by Ross Macdonald. New York Times Book Review, 14 Feb. 1971, pp. 1, 28-30.

Wolfe, Peter. Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams: The World of Ross Macdonald’s Novels. Bowling Green U Popular P, 1976.

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1 Noting Archer’s comment in The Moving Target that “evil isn’t so simple” (109), L. L. Lee writes that “Although Archer will continue as though to assert a belief in [O]riginal [S]in, a kind of Calvinism, Macdonald’s view seems to be that goodness and evil are necessarily interwoven in ordinary human life” (58).

2 Mildred’s account of this forced abortion is grotesque: “I went along with [Alicia Hallman] to Dr. Grantland’s office. The part of me that agreed with her knew that I was going to lose my baby there. At the last minute, when I was on the table and it was too late, I tried to stop it. I screamed and fought against him. She came into the room with that gun of hers and told me to lie down and be quiet, or she’d kill me on the spot. Dr. Grantland didn’t want to go through with it. She said if he didn’t she’d run him out of his practice. He put a needle in me” (628).

3 The novel’s last paragraph reinforces Archer’s wistful contrition for his failed marriage: “For once in my life I had nothing and wanted nothing. Then the thought of Sue fell through me like a feather in a vacuum. My mind picked it up and ran with it and took flight. I wondered where she was, what she was doing, whether she’d aged much as she lay in ambush in time, or changed the color of her bright head” (648).

4 For the information presented in this paragraph I have relied on Tom Nolan’s biography of Macdonald, Karen Huston Karydes’s analysis, Sarah Weinman’s “Linda, Interrupted,” and Michael Kreyling’s critical study of the novelist. Two years and four months after Linda died, Millar wrote to Welty that his “grandson Jim has well survived his mother’s death and grown into a fine little boy,” though he added “I brood hopefully over his future, and say nothing” (Marrs and Nolan 122). His apprehension was justified. Despite his readjustment after the loss of his mother, owing in large measure to his devoted father and doting grandfather, Jimmie died of a drug overdose in 1989 at age twenty-six.

5 According to Cassie Hildreth, a distant cousin who was once in love with him and ever since has served as the family matriarch’s paid companion, Tony Galton adopted the nom de plume of John Brown for an early poem because during the Great Depression he “had a theory that the country was going through another civil war—a war between the rich people and the poor people.” The latter he thought of as “white Negroes, and he wanted to do for them what John Brown did for the slaves” (677).

6 Justification for the simile used here can be found in a letter dated 4 April 1973 from Kenneth Millar to Eudora Welty, which ends by describing the past as that which “moves like an ocean under our lives” (Marrs and Nolan 125).

7 The concept reappears in Macdonald’s next-to-last Archer novel. In Sleeping Beauty the mother of Harold Sherry, who is being sought for a supposed kidnapping, ruminates that “Some German philosopher—I think it was Nietzsche—said that history just goes on repeating itself—the same old story, like a worn-out record endlessly repeating itself” (246).

8 Kreyling’s sixth chapter, “‘I Wish They All Could Be California Girls’: Archer in the 1960s,” elaborates on the cultural implications of this iconic stereotype (105-37).

9 Although Leonard Cassuto’s discussion of Macdonald’s fiction does not mention this character, who is both a runaway daughter and a runaway wife, Archer’s solicitous concern for her well-being is another example of the sentimentalism that underlies what this critic broadly calls the “hard-boiled ethos.”

10 As early as The Goodbye Look’s fourth chapter Archer suspects a “MacGuffin” when he states, “I was beginning to sense that the theft of the box was just a physical accident of the case” (464). The gold box is twice compared to its prototype in the myth of Pandora (see 452 and 556).

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Electronic reference

Robert Lance Snyder, Ross Macdonald, Redivivus?European journal of American studies [Online], 17-2 | 2022, Online since 05 July 2022, connection on 10 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Robert Lance Snyder

Robert Lance Snyder (Ph.D., Northwestern University), Professor Emeritus of English at the University of West Georgia, has recently published The Post-Cold War Fiction of John le Carré (University of Missouri Press, 2017) and Eric Ambler’s Novels: Critiquing Modernity (Lexington Books, 2020), in addition to two dozen journal articles on espionage, hard-boiled, and American noir fiction. He serves as the invited Advisory Author for a commemorative volume of Contemporary Literary Criticism on le Carré, forthcoming from Layman Poupard Publishing.

By this author

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