Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels
The Library of America 2017
Tom Nolan, Editor
ISBN 978-1-59853-534-1

The work of Ross Macdonald, who the New York Times Book Review once lauded America’s best detective novelist, is featured in a four-novel collection just issued by the Library of America.

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“All four novels are mesmerizing and thrilling to the end.”

Macdonald, whose real name was Kenneth Miller, published his first spy novel in 1944 while pursuing a doctorate degree in hopes of landing a teaching post that would allow him to “craft mainstream fiction” and ultimately become a full-time novelist. But his next published works received mixed reviews, so his publisher suggested Miller use a pseudonym.  As Ross Macdonald, he invented Los Angeles private detective Lew Archer as his protagonist in forthcoming novels that received enthusiastic reviews.

The novels in this collection, “The Underground Man,” “Black Money,” “The Instant Enemy,” and “The Goodbye Look” incorporate typical mystery genre elements: A mysterious death occurs, and Archer sets out to solve the puzzle. 

What makes Macdonald’s books remarkable is the complexity of the crime and his inclusion of biographical information. Each novel includes a troubled young girl whose troubles are manifested in a past trauma. Macdonald’s own daughter was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident that haunted her and triggered a mental breakdown.

In “The Underground Man,” the three-year-old girl, recalls gunshots and the disappearance of her mother. She gets entangled in a kidnapping and a murder, then attempts suicide.  

Written in the environment of the Southern California during the 1960s, the novels swirl about the middle-class, greed, LSD use and Macdonald’s own anti-war views. His characters captures the mind workings of criminals, some of whom are quite ordinary people, like the professor in “Black Money,” or a desperate mother in “The Instant Enemy.”

It’s understandable why Macdonald is highly acclaimed. His writing is poetically intelligent, with well-crafted metaphors. I particularly liked his bird comparisons which set the mood of the day or offer a vivid, timely image, all spurred by his daughter’s death, when he and his wife, Margaret Sturm, also a well-published mystery writer, became avid birders. All four novels are mesmerizing and thrilling to the end.  


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Review by Kate Padilla