The beautifully charged language of Ross Macdonald’s detective novels do more than adorn—it also helps swiftly clinch a character for the reader. By Malcolm Forbes.


Throughout his career, Ross Macdonald—the pen name of Kenneth Millar—was hailed as the true heir to Dashiell Hammettand Raymond Chandler as master of the hardboiled mystery. But accolades beyond the reach of a genre writer still eluded him—until towards the end of his career, when he was finally acknowledged as not “only” a crime writer but a highly regarded American novelist. Macdonald subverted the genre by delivering the riddles and intricacies demanded of the crime novel in language that could be stark but also subtly nuanced and beautifully cadenced, while never slowing the requisite pace or diluting the excitement. In doing so he silenced those naysayers who had previously scoffed at the idea that the humble detective novel could possess any intrinsic literary worth. Praise finally came from both sides of the literary divide, with James Ellroy acknowledging his debt to Macdonald’s Lew Archer books and Eudora Welty lauding him as “a more serious and complex writer than Chandler and Hammett ever were.” Five of the gripping Lew Archer novels have just become part of the Penguin modern classics series. For many, this anointment is long overdue.

The Archer series ran from 1949 to 1976, and it is one of the later ones, The Underground Manfrom 1971, that is arguably Macdonald’s best. It opens calmly with Archer waking up, feeding peanuts to dive-bombing jays at his window and feeling a warm but ominous breeze. Such a slow set-up was typical: no crash-bang corpse-on-first-page histrionics. Gradually, though, Archer finds himself “descending into trouble” when he is employed by a beguiling blonde to track down her abducted son. To stoke the tension, forest fires are raging in the hills of Santa Teresa (Macdonald’s Santa Barbara) “like the bivouacs of a besieging army.” The case expands to include an AWOL father, a blackmailer, a couple of gruesome murders and a catalog of dark family secrets.

Ross Macdonald

‘The Underground Man’ by Ross Macdonald. 320 pp. Penguin. $10. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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