|Some writers begin with a bang; others whimper their way to what it
is they want to do. Ross Macdonald, series character Lew Archer. At his peak was one of the very
few writers simultaneously on the bestseller lists and taught on
literature courses in colleges all across America, came up the whimper
Born in Canada in 1915, he and his mother were deserted by his sea-captain father and left in sad financial straits. Yet, highly intelligent, he had aspirations to take a place in middle-class society and succeeded in getting to college. In 1941, he went to California, which his American mother had always told him should be his spiritual home, to work for a doctorate in English Literature. All this was, in a way, his first step towards the writing for which eventually he became famous. Indeed, his first title for the book with which he established himself, The Galton Case, was 'The Castle and the Poorhouse'.
Before he came to that, he had other, more tentative fiction to produce. While serving in the US Navy between 1943 and 1945, he wrote a first crime novel, The Dark Tunnel, under his own name, Kenneth Millar. Its hero was a private eye called Chet Gordon, who was to feature in one more book, Trouble Follows Me.
Despite his erudite literary education, Macdonald found that mystery fiction was somehow the only mode he could write in. 'My one attempt to write a regular autobiographical novel's he once said, 'turned out so badly that I never showed it to my publisher and I left the manuscript, I think, in an abandoned blacking factory. A Somewhat obscure joke, paying tribute as a literary ancestor (failed) to Charles Dickens and his unhappy boyhood days in the blacking factory by Hungerford Stairs on the Thames.
So much for the negative reason for turning to crime. On the positive side, was the fact that the books of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler seemed to Kenneth Millar to achieve 'a popular and democratic literature' with their heroes continuing in an urban setting the masculine and egalitarian traditions of frontier America. He felt, too, that there was more to be done with the hard-boiled style than even these masters had achieved.
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