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book review

The Library of America is taking a welcome step to ensure Ross Macdonald’s work is given proper consideration.

Back in 1970, when I was 15 years old, my bookstore was the twirling metal stand at the Shea's IGA in Bobcaygeon, Ont., where my parents ran a cottage resort and trailer park. This was where I'd grab an Agatha Christie novel, or the latest Nero Wolfe mystery by Rex Stout. But on this particular day, what caught my eye was the Bantam paperback edition of The Goodbye Look, a Lew Archer novel by Ross Macdonald.

Six years later, when I found myself spending an evening with the man, having dinner with him, giving him a tour of Trent University, it would dawn on me what a pivotal moment that visit to the grocery store had been.

But more about that later.

On the paperback cover was a quote from a William Goldman article in the New York Times Book Review: "The finest series of detective novels ever written by an American." That was good enough for me. I put down 95 cents and the book was mine.

The key word in that cover blurb was "ever." Goldman, the famous screenwriter and novelist, was clearly implying Ross Macdonald's work had surpassed that of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. He wasn't alone in thinking that way. In the sixties and seventies, Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) was seen to be their successor, a novelist who'd taken the conventions of the detective novel and enriched them with psychological insight and greater moral complexity.

Since Macdonald's death in 1983, his star has faded somewhat, while Chandler and Hammett remain literary household names. But on the 100th anniversary of Macdonald's birth, The Library of America is taking a welcome step to ensure that his work is given proper consideration.

It has just published Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s – The Way Some People Die, The Barbarous Coast, The Doomsters and The Galton Case. The book also includes a detailed chronology of the author's life and a selection of articles and letters by Macdonald that offer insights into his approach to his work.

The first two novels are of the hard-boiled variety, and owe much to Chandler and Hammett. But Macdonald believed he could do better than that, particularly better than Chandler, whose loose plots were designed to create good scenes, whereas Macdonald viewed plot as a vehicle for meaning.

His approach has evolved by the time he writes The Doomsters, about an escapee from a psychiatric facility who comes to Archer for help, and The Galton Case, in which a woman engages Archer to find her long-lost son. Archer himself is rarely the story. He's not hired by old girlfriends with long legs and ample bosoms who now find themselves in a jam. As Macdonald himself had said, Archer was so two-dimensional that if he turned sideways, he would disappear. I wouldn't go that far. Archer feels fully realized, has a strong moral code, a sense of decency. But he is also a device, a kind of gardener who unearths dirt to allow sunshine in and expose diseased roots. Unlike the earlier novels, where Archer often tangled with common thugs, in The Doomsters and The Galton Case the detective's clients are more upscale, but their sins run just as deep.

The latter is seen by many as Macdonald's masterpiece, and it may well have been at the time, but his career highs would come in later decades with The Chill, Black Money and The Underground Man. The Galton Case, however, marked a period where Macdonald mined, in a more direct way, his own life for material. It explores his feeling of displacement that came from being born in the United States but raised in Canada. Plus, there's the theme of the absent father: Macdonald's abandoned the family when he was a boy; in Galton, Archer is on the trail of a young man named John who's in search of his own. (Macdonald's father's name was John.) Many of the 18 Archer novels, and short stories (one called, interestingly, Gone Girl), are about disappearances, and it doesn't seem to be reading too much into things to surmise that much of Macdonald's writing was about finding what he himself had lost.

This Library of America collection is edited by Tom Nolan, who wrote the definitive biography of the author in the late 1990s, and is co-editor of the upcoming Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.

Macdonald was a prodigious writer of letters. I know. I have a stack of them.

I was in my late teens when I wrote to my favourite writer, who lived in Santa Barbara, Calif., ostensibly to ask if he could point me to pieces written about him – such as a Newsweek cover story – for a thesis I was intending to write for a Trent English course. When, to my joy, he replied, I wrote back and made a request I now realize was a huge imposition. Could I send him the manuscript of the detective novel I'd written? He said sure.

I've often wondered why. Maybe it had something to do with my letter's postmark. Ontario had made its mark on Macdonald. He'd attended Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate (and later taught there; writer-broadcaster June Callwood was one of his students), studied at Western, married the daughter of Kitchener's mayor (Margaret Millar would achieve fame as a crime writer before her husband hit it big), saw his first professional work published in Toronto Saturday Night.

We had many letters back and forth covering a range of topics, including that book I'd sent him, and a second one. (Neither of those novels was ever published, and we can all be grateful for that.)

In 1976, in the lead-up to the publication of The Blue Hammer, Macdonald wrote to tell me he was coming to Canada. Maybe there would be a chance to meet in Peterborough when he was visiting with Margaret's family. The call came on a May afternoon. I'd just finished burying the fish guts from our cottage resort's guests' catch. Did I want to join them for dinner?

For most other kids in this country – I never played hockey – this would be like getting a call from Bobby Orr asking if you wanted to hang out.

I raced over and found him standing outside, as though expecting me. He was dressed in a sport jacket and nice slacks, looking just like his author photo on the hardcover of Sleeping Beauty I'd brought with me. He was reserved and soft-spoken.

He asked about my family. I told him about losing my father when I was 16. It seemed to hit home. "I'm sorry," he said.

At his request, I'd brought along a copy of the skin magazine Gallery that included an interview with him he'd not seen. He peeked into the bag, blushed, asked that I wait a minute while he went inside and tucked it away into his suitcase.

I drove him along the road that hugs the Otonabee River, gave him a walking tour of Trent. We talked about writing and other things, but I can recall almost nothing specific of what we said. I think, maybe, I was in shock. I do remember telling him, over dinner at the home of his wife's relatives, how much I loved the low-key, opening chapter of The Underground Man, where Archer befriends a troubled young boy feeding some blue jays.

"I'll write another one like that for you," he said, and smiled.

Not that he actually would have, but unbeknownst to him, he'd already written his final novel. Encroaching Alzheimer's disease would end his writing career, and seven years later, he would be dead.

In my copy of his novel Sleeping Beauty, he wrote: "For Linwood, who will, I hope, someday outwrite me. Sincerely, Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald)."

Perhaps as much as I treasure that inscription are these words he wrote to me in a letter dated Feb. 28, 1976:

"This is a fairly complex discipline that you and I have undertaken, and it takes time to master or be mastered by it. Something like a lifetime, in my rather slow case, but worth the time, and we make friends on the way."

Linwood Barclay's new novel, Broken Promise, will be released in July.