No crime writer has had a more profound effect on me, creatively or personally, than Ross Macdonald.
Black Money was not the first of his novels that I read, but I got to it not long after my first Macdonald novel, The Goodbye Look.
I found it on a squeaky metal paperback rack in a grocery store in Bobcaygeon, Ontario, when I was about fifteen. I’d been devouring other mystery writers by that time – Rex Stout and Agatha Christie especially – but what caught my attention was a blurb across the top of this Bantam paperback from William Goldman’s write-up in the New York Times Book Review: ‘The finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.’
So I bought it. Ninety-five cents. If you had told me, at that moment, that within the next few years I’d be having a long correspondence with the author, culminating with a dinner, I would have told you I thought that was unlikely.
There was something different about this Ross Macdonald, featuring his brilliant creation, detective Lew Archer. Unlike the breezy crime novels I’d been reading, these stories were darker, moodier. They were more thoughtful, psychological. Macdonald was using the conventions of the detective novel to do more than entertain. He had something to say.
His novels explored family dysfunction, teenagers who were adrift, the corruptive power of wealth. In such later novels as The Underground Man and Sleeping Beauty, ecological concerns were folded into the plots.
The mysteries I’d cut my teeth on were just that: mysteries. Who did it? That was all that mattered. That was still a question in a Macdonald book, but there was another one: Why did they do it? Macdonald’s mysteries were about buried secrets and how they inevitably come to the surface, as though coming into the light will have a purifying effect.
Macdonald’s work was an inspiration to me. I’d been writing stories as long as I’d been reading them. In my early teens, I would take characters from my favourite television shows and create my own adventures for them. But as I approached my twenties, I came up with my own detective and wrote a couple of novels – unpublished, thankfully – starring him.
In my final year at Trent University, I wrote a thesis on the private detective as an iconic literary device. I gave Chandler’s Marlowe and Hammett’s Spade their due, but Archer was my real focus. I wrote to Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald was a pseudonym) care of his publisher, asking if he could refer me to any critical writing about his work. To my delight, he wrote back and pointed me toward a number of things, including a Newsweek cover story.
Then I did a very bad thing.
I wrote back and said I had, you know, written a novel, and he could absolutely say no, I would totally understand, but could I, maybe, perhaps, send it to him?
He said, sure.
And he liked it. He made some suggestions. The writing was a bit too spare, he said. The book needed a subplot. But with work, it would be worth publishing. I rewrote it, Kenneth Millar read it again. Liked it even more.
We entered into a correspondence that lasted several years. He wrote and told me he and his wife, the mystery writer Margaret Millar, were coming to Canada. Their trip included a stopover in the town where I went to university.
Would I be interested in joining them for dinner, he asked?
For most kids growing up in Canada, this would be like hockey great Bobby Orr asking if you wanted to hang out.
We had dinner. I gave him a tour of Trent University. I told him how much I loved the opening scene of The Underground Man, where Archer and a small boy feed some birds together. I loved the combination of gentleness and tension. ‘I’ll write another one like that for you,’ he said, smiling. We talked about his youth, growing up in Ontario, not that far from where we were having dinner.
We continued to correspond, but his letters to me became less frequent. I worried that I was becoming a pest, and eased off. I learned later that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s – there were a couple of moments, during our brief time together, when he seemed oddly confused – and a little more than seven years after our meeting, he passed away.
To this day, I remain impressed by Ross Macdonald’s writing, of course, but even more by his kindness and generosity. It amazes me that someone of his fame and standing could be bothered to nurture some budding author – not even out of school yet – a few thousand miles away.
When I met him for dinner, I brought along a copy of Sleeping Beauty for him to sign. He wrote: ‘Peterborough, Ontario, May 1, 1976. For Linwood, who will, I hope, someday outwrite me. Sincerely, Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald).’
Not there yet.
This article, in slightly different form, has been published previously. A longer piece on Barclay and Macdonald appears in Books to Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke, published by Hodder and Stoughton.
Linwood Barclay’s latest thriller Trust Your Eyes is out now in paperback and ebook.