Ten years ago, while nobody was watching -- or, rather, while everyone was looking in the wrong direction -- a writer of detective stories turned into a major American novelist.
-- John Leonard, The New York Times Book Review
...the Archer books, the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.
-- William Goldman, The New York Times Book Review
In 1969, when most literate readers thought detective stories beneath consideration and mystery fiction rarely appeared on best-seller lists, a handful of New York journalists conspired to push a California writer of private-eye novels to the front rank of American letters.
The writer was Ross Macdonald, a mystery novelist who didn't so much transcend the genre as elevate it, showing again (like Hammett, Faulkner, Collins, Dickens, Greene, and many others since Poe) how the crime story can at any time become art.
The conspiracy worked.
Front-page celebrations in the New York Times Book Review and a cover story in Newsweek turned Ross Macdonald's books about detective Lew Archer into national best-sellers. Movies and a television series were made. Millions of Macdonald's books were sold. After twenty years in the mystery field, Ross Macdonald was an overnight success.
The world at large discovered a writer already well known to mystery fans. Crime-fiction reviewers had long hailed Macdonald as the hard-boiled successor to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. His influence on a generation of mystery writers was profound. In such classic works as The Doomsters, The Galton Case, The Chill, Black Money, The Goodbye Look, The Underground Man, and Sleeping Beauty, Macdonald opened fresh thematic territory and set a new literary standard for his genre. Vital trends in modern crime fiction drew impetus from Macdonald's work. Writers as diverse as Sara Paretsky, Jonathan Kellerman, Jerome Charyn, and James Ellroy have called Macdonald an influence. Simply as a best-selling mystery author he broke ground; his success, before a time when genre authors routinely became household names, showed the way for the future Parkers, Graftons, Hillermans, Cornwells, and Mosleys.
Ross Macdonald's appeal and importance extended beyond the mystery field. He was seen as an important California author, a novelist who evoked his region as tellingly as such mainstream writers as Nathanael West and Joan Didion. Before he died, Macdonald was given the Los Angeles Times's Robert Kirsch Award for a distinguished body of work about the West. Some critics ranked him among the best American novelists of his generation.
By any standard he was remarkable. His first books, patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a postwar California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classic myths. Gradually he swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery. By the time of his commercial breakthrough, some of Macdonald's concerns (the breakdown between generations, the fragility of moral and global ecologies) held special resonance for a country divided by an unpopular war and alarmed for the environment. His vision was strong enough to spill into real life, where a news story or a friend's revelation could prompt the comment "Just like a Ross Macdonald novel."
It was a vision with meaning for all sorts of readers. Macdonald got fan mail from soldiers, professors, teenagers, movie directors, ministers, housewives, poets. He was claimed as a colleague by good writers around the world, including Eudora Welty, Andrey Voznesensky, Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Berger, Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Laurence, Osvaldo Soriano, Hugh Kenner, Nelson Algren, Donald Davie, and Reynolds Price.
When he died in 1983, Ross Macdonald was the best-known and most highly regarded crime-fiction writer in America. But (despite dozens of articles, two documentary films, and two critical studies) not much was known about the author of "the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American."
It was no secret Ross Macdonald was the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, a Santa Barbara man married to another good mystery writer, Margaret Millar. But his official biography was spare: born in northern California of Canadian parents, raised in Ontario and other provinces, he earned a doctorate at Michigan, served in the U.S. Navy, and moved with wife and daughter to California in 1946. In a handful of autobiographical essays, Millar seemed to conceal as much as he told.
Hiding things came second nature, to protect himself and spare his family. Like the people in his fiction, Millar had secrets, and he persuaded sympathetic journalists to collaborate in keeping them.
Yet he believed in the writing of candid biography and expected to be its subject. He valued works that made connections between a novelist's life and his fiction. Millar preserved much material that proved helpful in explicating the books of Ross Macdonald, who admitted he was one of those authors who strew their novels with personal clues, "like burglars who secretly wish to be caught." Among the revealing documents Millar left future literary detectives were a candid notebook memoir, an unpublished autobiographical novel, and thirty years' correspondence.
Now -- after the deaths of his widow, their only child, and their only grandchild; after unrestricted examination of the Kenneth and Margaret Millar Papers at the University of California, Irvine, as well as other archives' material; and after hundreds of interviews with those who knew Millar -- a fuller picture emerges of this admired American writer.
Ross Macdonald came to crime writing honestly. Virtually fatherless and growing up poor, Kenneth Millar broke social and moral laws: having sex from the age of eight, getting drunk at twelve, fighting violently, stealing. "I'm amazed at some of the chances I took as a boy," he admitted. Worse than the things he did were those he imagined. Mad at the world and at his lot in life, he sometimes felt angry enough to kill. As a youngster he read Poe and Hawthorne and Dostoyevsky: writers who wrestled with the good and the bad angels he too was assaulted by. When he wrote his own mystery stories, Millar saw himself in his tales' wrongdoers. "I don't have to be violent," he said, "my books are."
By his own reckoning, he barely escaped being a criminal. When he stopped breaking laws before starting college, he fashioned a code of conduct for himself (and others) as unyielding as the formal religious creeds he had rejected. Millar put himself in a behavioral box as if his life or mental health depended on it, though his psyche often strained against the box's walls. He stayed over forty years in an often rancorous marriage, putting its tensions to use as he turned his wife and himself into published authors. He stayed in the box of detective fiction, determined to provide for his family and avoid the failures of his irresponsible father.
"The Split Man" was a title Macdonald often played with. Millar himself was a man split along national, cultural, intellectual, professional, and even sexual fault lines. Born in California, raised in Canada, as a young man he thought of moving to England. All his life he felt on the wrong side of whatever border he'd most recently crossed. The roots of Macdonald's tales of troubled families in a corrupted California lay in Millar's bleak Ontario childhood with its "long conspiracies of silent pain."
The man who created the hard-boiled Lew Archer was one of the most brilliant graduate students in the history of the University of Michigan. While Macdonald's private-eye stories were being published in Manhunt magazine next to Mickey Spillane's (which he detested), Millar was writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the psychological criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His academic colleagues disparaged or despaired of his detective fiction; his fellow crime writers were puzzled or intimidated by his university work.
In the sunshine of Santa Barbara, California, Kenneth Millar dressed like a Midwesterner and spoke with a Scots-Canadian accent. In the wealthy heart of Nixon and Reagan country, he was a Stevensonian Democrat; even as a beach-club member, he still felt like an underdog.
He was a gentle man with a frightening temper, an intellectual who went to murder trials, a person of great pride and startling humility. Once or twice he nearly broke under his complexities. Like Oedipus (a recurring archetype in Macdonald's fiction and Millar's psyche), he seemed to bring about the tragedies he tried to avoid. Determined to be the good parent his own were not, Millar fathered an only child whose life was scarred by emotional and legal trauma. Obsessed with not causing fatal harm, he saw his daughter become entangled in the sort of headline-making events he'd always dreaded, incidents his own stories seemed to eerily foretell. At his daughter's darkest hours, Millar acted like his books' hero Lew Archer; then turned her crises into the fiction from which they might have sprung.
In his novels, Millar resolved his contradictions: there he hid and revealed an aching loneliness, a melancholy humor, and a lifetime of anger, fear, and regret. These singular works changed their genre and changed the way readers saw the world. In these stories, ordinary families became the stuff of mystery; and there was always guilt enough to go around. We recognized ourselves as characters in Ross Macdonald's novels. And the most interesting Macdonald character of all was Kenneth Millar.
Copyright © 1999 by Tom Nolan