The Moving Target

by Ross Macdonald

Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

1998, 256 pages

The Wycherly Woman

by Ross Macdonald

Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

1998, 288 pages


The Zebra-Striped Hearse

by Ross Macdonald

Published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard

1998, 288 pages


See a complete list of Ross Macdonald's work



He didn't tell me he was dying. Maybe he didn't know. It was 1980, and the Alzheimer's disease that would kill him within another three years was still very much a medical riddle. During our interview, he excused his failing memory as a certain symptom of age. He was then 64. His real name was Kenneth Millar. But every reader who, like me, had for years enthusiastically digested his tightly-woven tales of murder, deceit, and familial disintegration -- books that ranked him among the foremost developers of the modern American detective story -- knew him better by his pseudonym: Ross Macdonald.

On assignment for a newspaper in Portland, Oregon, I'd bused all the way down to Santa Barbara, California, where Macdonald lived with his wife and fellow novelist Margaret Millar (author of such works as The Murder of Miranda). The taxi driver who wheeled me out to their Hope Ranch address looked askance at my stubbled face and rumpled attire, not sure I really belonged in so exclusive a neighborhood. But I'd worked for months to arrange this meeting, and nothing so trifling as a cabbie's skepticism could turn me away.

For 36 years, I knew, Macdonald had been dragging his pen down the mean streets of crime fiction, expanding the genre's definition as he went, giving it psychological depth and mainstream notoriety without ever abandoning the form's most popular precepts. (One critic called Macdonald "the thinking man's crime writer and the street reader's intellectual.") His chief conspirator in this effort was a Los Angeles private eye named Lew Archer, whom he'd invented in his fifth book, The Moving Target (1949). Seventeen more novels and one collection of short stories later, Archer was the most recognizable literary gumshoe in the United States, even featured in movies (including the 1966 Paul Newman vehicle Harper, based on The Moving Target) and a regrettably short-lived 1975 TV series starring Brian Keith. More importantly, Archer and his creator were principal influences on a younger circle of crime novelists, from Robert B. Parker and Arthur Lyons to Stephen Greenleaf and Sue Grafton. Meeting Macdonald linked me directly to a fertile tradition of American mystery fiction that stretched back to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and the "hard-boiled" stylists of Black Mask magazine.

We chatted for hours in his small, dimly-lit study. Macdonald was a slender, slow-moving, remarkably unpretentious gent who spoke softly with a slight Scots-Canadian accent and smiled often, pleased to see a fledgling writer so interested in his accomplishments. We discussed his youth -- how he was born near San Francisco in 1915, but soon moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and, after his parents separated, remained in Canada (passed around from one relation to another) until he went off to grad school in Michigan and then into the Navy during World War II. We talked about the history of detective fiction and about the Archer novel he was then working on (but seems never to have finished; his last Archer yarn, The Blue Hammer, came out in 1976). And Macdonald mused on the differences between his own pacific existence and what he described as his P.I.'s "barren life. He only sees the worst side of it, by choice."

On the worst side is definitely where Archer finds himself in his first case, The Moving Target, one of three Macdonald novels newly reissued by Vintage Books. Archer is introduced as a former Long Beach policeman, recently split from his wife and taking on private investigations ("Most of my work is divorce. I'm a jackal, you see"). He's hired to locate an egocentric millionaire named Ralph Sampson who might have been kidnapped by one of his flaky acquaintances... or may simply have trotted off to a sexual liaison. It's an unusual tale, since it focuses on no single crime or villain, but instead broadly plumbs the ambiguities of evil and parallels the Sampson disappearance nicely with cross-border smuggling of Mexican tenant farmers. Perhaps the most conventional aspect of the book is Archer, whose wise-cracking attitude and proclivity toward violence were borrowed from numerous precursors.

However, Archer changed and became more multi-dimensional and less predictable as the series progressed. "He matured," Macdonald observed during my interview. "[He became] much more sophisticated... and he cares more about people than he did. He's learned to care. You really have to." The author called his detective "a democratic kind of hero"-- not so idealized a protagonist as Chandler's Philip Marlowe, but instead life-sized, vulnerable, tarnished by guilt and afraid of "the treacherous darkness around us and inside of us." Archer evolved as someone whose demonstrative compassion and willingness to listen invited others to share their frustrations and pains and hidden hostilities. In fact, his primary investigative technique was just talking and "waiting for truth to come up to the surface." He was a magnifying lens through which Macdonald could reveal and then analyze the tormented glory of the human condition.

Interestingly, Macdonald rarely allowed Archer to indulge in self-reflection --something that might have made both the author and his creation uncomfortable. As the detective explains in The Blue Hammer, "my chosen study was other men, hunted men in rented rooms, aging boys clutching at manhood before night fell and they grew suddenly old. If you were a therapist, how could you need therapy? If you were a hunter, you couldn't be hunted. Or could you?"

The Archer novels never departed entirely from the hoary conventions of America's hard-boiled school of detective fiction. Homicides remained a plot staple, greed still drove men to venal acts requiring more brawn than brains, and policemen were just as likely to be misguided in dealing with Archer as they were in facing any of his imaginary contemporaries. If Archer didn't treat women as shabbily as they were treated in, say, the works of Mickey Spillane (who once remarked that in his books, "I don't hit girls, I kick 'em"), Macdonald -- like Hammett, Chandler, and so many others before him -- still tended to make the most gorgeous ones the most guileful, as well.

Yet Macdonald's works are different in that they are not so much whodunits as they are why-dunits. They're complex, serious, and Freudian enough to have made critics sit up and notice them as they did not bother to notice other works in the field. Macdonald was intrigued less by acts of violence than by their sources, what it is that makes somebody strike out with a bludgeon or bullets or just the corrosive might of articulated hatred. And, no doubt due to his own disjointed upbringing, he was attracted by the deterioration of families, the lack of love in American households, and generational culpability.

These themes had been alluded to in earlier works, but they were more prominent beginning with The Galton Case (1959), in which an elderly heiress hires Archer to track down the rebellious son from whom she was separated "in bitter anger and hatred" 23 years before. Internecine conflict again plays a part in The Wycherly Woman (1961), the main plotline of which concerns a missing, self-destructive girl and her secretive, oversexed mother, both of whom are too quick to cast blame for their troubles. Later, in The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), Archer confronts a clan torn asunder by the conflicting aspirations of two members, one a dictatorial but fallible father who wants to celebrate his family's heritage, the other his daughter determined to break away and achieve her own identity at any cost.

All of Archer's later cases somehow involved families dealing with, or -- more often and dangerously -- not dealing with, old secrets and fears, and the repercussions that might then ensue. Macdonald saw these stories as poetic documentaries. "They are related to what goes on in the world, not in factual terms but in imaginative terms," he once explained. "They are halfway between a sociological report and a nightmare."

Few crime novelists since Ross Macdonald have achieved his combination of lyrical prose, crisp dialogue, and understanding of man's constant struggle for individual value. His stories are legends of our time, indictments of our society that spark disturbing agreement in readers. Though heir to the traditions of Chandler and Hammett, Macdonald was a more prolific novelist and, arguably, a better writer than either of those predecessors. With Vintage reissuing the Archer books, people too young or benighted to have read Macdonald when he was alive now have the chance to appreciate his works fresh. The author must be smiling in his grave. | September 1998


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is a contributing editor of January Magazine and the author of several books, including the PBS-TV tie-in America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995). A Seattle resident, he's currently working on a collection of essays about that city's past.


To learn more about Ross Macdonald's life and the career of his famous fictional detective, check out an excellent website called The Ross Macdonald Files.