Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ross Macdonald

AudioFile Magazine awarded an Earphones today to my recording of Ross Macdonald's The Wycherly Woman. That's great news for me, of course, but even better news for Ross Macdonald, whose reputation seems to have languished in recent years. This August will see the release of my sixteenth Lew Archer recording, The Ivory Grin. Few things have brought me greater pleasure over the years than to revisit, every so often, the voluble, eccentric characters who populate a typical Archer tale--from hare-brained beatniks to domineering, jewel-encrusted matriarchs.

Mystery aficionados have deemed Macdonald the heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. At a recent book club gathering here in Ashland, author Christopher Rice spoke of his indebtedness to Macdonald's mastery of character and psychological detail. And I get the occasional fan letter thanking me (and Blackstone) for devoting the time and effort to publishing his works in audio. But the general public seems to prefer racier fare these days--slashers and serial killers--to Macdonald's moody, sardonic forays into the human condition. Thus it's gratifying to see the audio versions garnering consistent praise in the audiobook press--not just for the performances, which is flattering, but for the quality of the writing. Black Money was even nominated for an Audie Award in the contemporary mystery category this year. Not bad for a fifty-year-old detective story...

Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Millar, was a complicated man who lived a complicated life that is reflected in the shifting moral sands charted in his novels. His wife, Margaret Millar, achieved early fame as the author of a series of taut psychological crime dramas, and is generally considered to be the better writer of the two. Macdonald himself struggled to find his niche, but when he did, with the first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, in 1949, he settled into a groove that earned him a reputation that has outlasted that of his wife. Their only child, Linda, died at the age of 31 after struggling with alcohol and depression.

I think it could fairly be said that most mystery writers don't lead lives that warrant lengthy, in-depth examination. Tom Nolan's 1999 biography of Macdonald, however, is well worth reading, not only for his crisp analysis of Macdonald's work but for his even-handed, if often painful, exploration of the closely-guarded inner life of this brilliant and troubled man.


I'll conclude with what I hope will be viewed not as self-promotion, but rather as a personal tribute to one of my favorite authors--an audio excerpt from the final pages of The Moving Target. It's also a whopper of a spoiler, for which I apologize, but of the many wonderful examples of dialogue in Macdonald's novels, this one has always stood out in my mind. It's a classic confession scene, but with a twist: Archer and the killer, who is an acquaintance from law enforcement days and has just married the victim's daughter, have driven together to the dead man's mansion. As they sit parked in the driveway, Archer confronts his old friend with his suspicions. It's not the typical, lame "I'll-explain-everything-before-I-blow-your-head-off" device, but a bleak conversation about a necessary parting of ways. It's characteristic of the moral stickiness that pervades Macdonald's work. My favorite line is, "I shot Taggart in good faith!"


  1. I've always liked MacDonald, ever since I heard the full cast production of Sleeping Beauty. A detective who is a philosopher with a wry wit, he's much more than the typical gumshoe you see today. This work transcends the genre to become literature. I'm glad you're doing it, and wish Blackstone would also pick up John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series, which has only been released in abridged format, as far as I know. McGee is the finest detective series I've ever read, and like Ross and Archer, it accomplishes the same hypnotic effect of lingering in the mind long after the tale is done.

  2. 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.

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  4. Hi, there three Ross MacDonald books not available in audio,. The Instant Enemy
    The Goodbye Look
    which seems to have been recorded for the blind but not commercially available and The Doomsters which has never been done.
    That said whenever I listen to any of the Lew Archer series I actually think I'm listening to Lew Archer , these books have been very well done, thanks from a fan in Paris, France