Ross MacDonald (pen name for Kenneth Millar [pron. Miller]) was one of the triumvirate of great hard-boiled detective fiction, the others being Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Just as Chandler looked to Hammett, the pioneer, MacDonald looked to Chandler, whom he called a “slumming angel.”
MacDonald was the last of the three to start writing, publishing stories while still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in English literature with a dissertation on romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. MacDonald is credited with bringing to the hard-boiled genre a psychological depth of characterization and motivation. And it is with this book, The Galton Case, that MacDonald’s fiction really begins to take a much more psychological direction.
MacDonald was married to Margaret Millar, a fellow Canadian. Ms. Millar was a mystery author in her own right, whose novels often took a psychological and even pathological bent (Note: MacDonald chose a pen name so that his own work would not be confused with his wife’s work). Her earliest mysteries featured psychiatrist Paul Prye as detective, and her later stand-alone novels often involved instances of psycho-pathology.
MacDonald’s early novels were consciously imitative of Raymond Chandler’s work, as you can see from this brief excerpt: “A Harvard chair stood casually in one corner. I sat down on it, in the interest of self-improvement.” And later, when he’s summoned to his client’s secretary, he gets up from the chair noting: “I got up out the Harvard chair. It was like being expelled.”
MacDonald’s detective, Lew Archer, like Philip Marlowe, was a former member of the police, now an independent investigator, and like Marlowe, was let go because he was not a team player. MacDonald’s style was originally a lot closer to the syncopated style of Chandler, and in his earliest outings, his detective was more cynical than he would later become. Over time, Archer became less hardened, and more world-weary. He could still utter wise-cracks with the best of them, but he clearly came to be much more sympathetic to the unfortunates with whom he came into contact in his investigations.
In The Galton Case, Archer goes to track down a wealthy man long alienated from his family. What he finds instead is a youngster claiming to be the man’s son. He had grown up in Canada, however, far from California, where he had been born. The young man seems to have some secrets, though, and Archer stays on the case at the request of the Galton physician, even after the young man is introduced to the elderly Mrs. Galton. This novel marked a shift towards more psychologically rich characterization and to more Oedipal stories, features that would become standard in subsequent Archer novels. Some of the impetus towards greater psychological writing may have come from his wife’s novels, which were psychologically oriented. And MacDonald himself underwent psychoanalysis around the time he began working on this book, through which he came to consciousness of issues he had with his own absent father. And in John Galton, Ross MacDonald crafted a character very much like MacDonald in his twenties. Like the young Galton, MacDonald was born in California, lost his father at an early age, was raised by relatives in Canada, and went to college at the University of Michigan.
MacDonald was hugely influential on the next generation of hard-boiled detective authors, especially Robert B. Parker, whose own doctoral dissertation at Boston University, "The Violent Hero: Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality", focused on the works of Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald. Parker’s hero Spenser may owe his name to Chandler’s Marlowe (both named after Elizabethan poets and both knights errant in their own way), but Spenser’s sympathetic involvement with his clients recalls Archer more than Marlowe. Note: MacDonald named his detective after Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur) and Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner at the start of The Maltese Falcon. Sue Grafton, author of the popular alphabet series (starting with A is for Alibi) featuring Kinsey Milhone, places her detective in the fictional town of Santa Teresa, the same town where Lew Archer operated in years past (Santa Teresa was a thinly disguised Santa Barbara, where MacDonald lived for most of his adult life).
If you’re eager for more MacDonald (and who isn’t?), you might also try The Chill, The Ivory Grin, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Far Side of the Dollar, and The Blue Hammer. If you’d like to watch a movie based on MacDonald’s Archer, you might check out Harper (based on The Moving Target) and The Drowning Pool, both starring Paul Newman as Lew Harper (I don’t know of any definitive reason for the name change – there’s more than one explanation out there). You can’t go wrong with Ross MacDonald for hard-boiled fiction with heart and psychological depth.