Sometimes it's the outsiders who tell us the most. And Ross Macdonald, the Canadian-reared detective novelist who spent most of his career in and around Santa Barbara, wrote some of the most enduring private eye novels set in the Golden State as well as, between the lines, some of the best social history of the postwar period.
HERE is my piece on the work and life of MacDonald (1915-'83), who would celebrate his birthday this Sunday. He's inspired other crime writers -- Robert Crais loves his work and carries his mantle in some ways, and James Ellroy has often talked to me how the emphasis on family roots in MacDonald's work has shaped his own. But more mainstream/literary writers have taken off from his as well: You can see private eye Lew Archer sneaking around the shadows of Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn" and Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union."
For my piece I speak to writer Crais, biographer Tom Nolan, LA noir queen Denise Hamilton and his old editor Otto Penzler.
Besides incredible plotting and psychologically rich characters, I love the way the author captures the gradual and seismic changes in California culture in the '50s and '60s -- the coming of long hair and rock music and drugs, changing sexual morals, the excitement of the young and the disorientation of the older generation. He writes about it all with sensitivity and grudging sympathy.
More on Ross Mac later. To answer your first question: Start with "The Galton Case."