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The last testament of Ross Macdonald

AT THE TIME OF Ross Macdonald's death 20 years ago, critics and readers alike considered him the greatest American crime novelist since Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler, Macdonald was praised as a literary artist, not just a detective story writer. The New York Times once described him as "a major American novelist," period.

But unlike Chandler, Macdonald has since slipped to the back shelves. Fewer than half of his books remain in print. And although American crime fiction now receives unprecedented attention from literary scholars, Macdonald's reputation lags behind that of contemporaries such as Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith.

Why the decline? In short, it was the serial killers who did Macdonald in.

. . .

Ross Macdonald -- the pen name for Kenneth Millar -- was born in 1915. He spent his early years in rural Ontario, but lived for most of his adult life in Southern California. He made his reputation with 18 Lew Archer novels published between 1949 and 1976. Macdonald wrote in the tough, hardboiled tradition, but his detective was not always a tough guy. In book after book, Lew Archer gently pieces together broken family ties. An Archer novel typically features a labyrinthine plot involving mistaken identities within clans haunted by tragedy. Archer solves murders by uncovering the traumatic memories of adults who had suffered or witnessed misdeeds as children.

The solutions required amazing genealogical gymnastics. In "The Galton Case" (1959), Archer exposes a young man posing as the heir to a lost fortune -- first as an imposter, and then as the real heir unknowingly posing as an imposter. In "The Chill" (1963), Archer uncovers a bizarre mock-Oedipal coverup in which a murderer lives with her college dean husband, posing as his mother.

Archer himself remained an unsolved mystery throughout. "My concern," Macdonald said in 1971, "is to tell the story of others. So I've deprived Archer of a private life." Over the years Archer became, in Macdonald's words, "almost pathologically selfless."

But new evidence shows that Macdonald had big, unrealized plans for his detective-samaritan. Macdonald's literary archive at the University of California at Irvine recently acquired a set of extensive notes for the final Archer novel he planned to write before Alzheimer's disease overtook him.

The novel was to have been a grand finale: The plot spans Lew Archer's career, and in it the genealogical detective learns he has a long-lost daughter. Macdonald planned for the young woman to come to Archer as a client searching for her unknown background. "The unspoken irony," Macdonald wrote in his notebook, is "that she is talking to Archer, who is her background." Macdonald planned for Archer to track down the truth, and this time the lost branch of the family tree would contain Archer himself.

This twist follows Macdonald's life: His only child, Linda, died of complications from drug abuse. But more significantly, the unpublished final chapter of the Archer saga only intensifies the writer's longstanding obsession with broken families. The phrase "generation gap" entered the American lexicon during Macdonald's lifetime. Macdonald wrote about domestic strife with real sympathy for both rebellious children and their stricken parents. "The Archer novels," he said in 1973, "are about various kinds of brokenness."

. . .

In many respects, Macdonald's suffering children anticipate today's generation of fictional serial killers. The Iceman, the debut villain in John Sandford's popular "Prey" series, grows up neglected by his one living parent, devising cruel games to substitute for his mother's love. James Ellroy's Martin Plunkett, sexually abused by his father's lover, makes a career of murder even as he wonders, "What was having a family like?" Even Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter, the embodiment of pure, inscrutable evil, turns out to have been an abused child.Today's army of fictional serial killers are Macdonald's child victims grown up -- but with all hope for them gone. Nothing can redeem the serial killer. He needn't even confess; he just has to be killed. He's a monster in human form.But Ross Macdonald's murderers are not monsters. Macdonald understood that the acts of grown-up abused kids inevitably raise questions of responsibility. In his interconnected fictional world, everyone shares responsibility for these acts. In "The Blue Hammer" (1976), Macdonald's last published work, a weary Archer sums it up when he says, "We're all guilty."Macdonald's kind of story -- backward-looking, involuted, self-probing -- is not the kind people want to read in an age of monsters, when you can blame everything on outside malevolence. Eudora Welty -- a Macdonald fan, friend, and influential booster -- described his novels as stories of "the absence of love." His signal, said Welty, is "simple and undisguised: find the connections; recognize what they mean; thereby, in all charity, understand."

Leonard Cassuto teaches English at Fordham University. He is currently writing a cultural history of 20th-century American crime fiction.

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