(pseudonym of Ken Millar; 1915-83)
"No once since Macdonald has written with such poetic inevitability about people, their secret cares, their emotional scars, their sadness, cowardice, and courage. He reminded the rest of us of what was possible in our genre."
-- John Lutz, in January Magazine
"We're all guilty"
-- Lew Archer, in The Blue Hammer
Kenneth Millar, under the pen name of Ross Macdonald, arguably forms the third point of what is now considered the Holy Trinity of hardboiled detective fiction, the other points being, of course, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and is, to many, the most critically and academically respected of the three.
Although born in Los Gatos, California, December 13th, 1915, he was raised and educated in Canada by his mother, a never particularly healthy woman, and a succession of relatives, after she and his father, a sometime sailor/poet/writer, separated. "I counted the number of rooms I had lived in during my first sixteen years, and got a total of fifty," he has written. This rootlessness, and the hole left by an absent parent, was to become a recurring motif in Millar's fiction.
He attended boarding schools, and in 1938, he took a break from his studies at the University of Western Ontario to travel for a year in Europe, including a visit to Nazi Germany. He returned to Canada, married Margaret Sturm, and acquired advanced degrees and a Phi Beta Kappa key at the University of Michigan. He began to teach and, inspired by his wife's success as a writer (yes, she was THAT Margaret Millar), he began to write. In 1939, their daughter, Linda, was born.
During World War II, perhaps unconciouslesssly following in his seaman father's footsteps, Millar served as communications officer aboard an escort carrier in the Pacific with the American navy. Stationed in California, Margaret went to visit in 1946, and the couple decided to stay on. They lived in Santa Barbara for the rest of their lives. At this point, Millar had gone full circle, returning to his birthplace, with a family once more.
Life was good, or at least appeared to be. Both Millar (under the pen name of first John Macdonald, then John Ross Macdonld and finally Ross Macdonald) and Margaret were regularly being published. Millar has begun a series, featuring private detective Lew Archer, beginning with 1949's The Moving Target.
And yet his past would not be denied--it lurked, waiting to pounce. And his own family life was less than ideal--there were difficulties in the marriage, and Linda was a troubled child. Therapy helped, and 1959's novel, The Galton Case became a watershed, both personally and artistically, in Millar's life. Archer's (and Millar's) obsession with the twisted, secret history of families, and how the sins of the past shape the present, were finally nailed down, for all who cared to see. Although the early Archer's were well-written and tightly plotted, The Galton Case really got down to business. From that point on, it has been noted, Macdonald wrote the same story over and over, endless variations on the same themes of lost and abandoned children, absent parents, family secrets denied. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would amount to hack work, perhaps. But not in Macdonald's hands.
In 1969, a favorable front page review in The New York Times Book Review, by William Goldman,of Millar's latest Archer novel, The Goodbye Look, followed by an interview by John Leonard, finally brought him the critical attention he had always felt was his due, and certainly the critical respect his reputation now has was jump-started by the piece. But his popularity (he supposedly sold a whole hell of a lot of books-one article I read recently mentioned "Stephen King-like sales") must be based on more than a few pieces in the NYTBR.
In fact, as contributor Jim Doherty points out:
Were all those fans taken in? For a lot of people, the Lew Archer books are a literary touchstone in their lives, and certainly in mine. I read one, on the recommendation of a friend, and I had soon devoured everyone I could find. And at the time I knew nothing of Macdonald's critical rep, other than a few scattered cover blurbs.
Certainly, some of the puffery about Macdonald, particularly by Macdonald himself, is hard to swallow. And not all the books are that strong. Then again, he wrote lots of books, more than Hammett and Chandler combined. And he did take the crime novel in directions it had never really gone before, and sold a lot of books doing it.
Archer was perhaps the first of the compassionate eyes to truly make a mark, and ushered in a whole new psychological depth to the hardboiled detective story. Millar's other interests included conservation and politics. He charted the fascinating and ever-evolving society of his native state, although his main thrust would be the twisted and hidden secrets of the human heart, the hidden truths that dog victim and murderer alike.And in the long run, he's remained a strong influence on the hardboiled genre, like it or not.
Certainly you can see traces of Archer's compassion (or bleeding heart weenie-ness, depending on your point of view) in the work of Robert Parker, Robert Crais, Michael Collins, Bill Pronzini, Sue Grafton, Joseph Hansen, Jonathan Valin and Stephen Greenleaf, among countless others. Someone must have actually read the books, and not just a few newspaper pieces.
He served as president of The Mystery Writers of America inj 1965, received the Silver Dagger in 1964 and the Gold Dagger in 1965 from The British Crime Writers Association, and in 1981, received The Eye, the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Private Eye Writers of America.
Ken Millar died on July 11, 1983, leaving behind a body of work that has forever left its mark on detective fiction. The Archer novels ask us to not so much solve the mysteries of our own lives, but, even more importantly, perhaps, to try to understand them.
Includes "Find the Woman," "Gone Girl," "The Bearded Lady," "The Suicide," "Guilt-Edged Blonde," "The Sinister Habit" and "Wild Goose Chase"
All the stories from The Name is Archer, plus "Midnight Blue" and "The Sleeping Dog"
Previously unpublished stories, edited by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, one featuring Joe Rogers (who was also in Macdonald's 1st EQMM short, which was later re-written to star Lew Archer) and two with Lew Archer.
Finally, all the Archer stories collected in one volume, plus bits and pieces of several unfinished Archer stories and novels, compiled by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, as well as his astounding biographical essay on Lew Archer. It doesn't get any better than this for Macdonald fans.
Fancy pancy Library of America edition of The Way Some People Die, The Barbarous Coast, The Doomsters and The Galton Case, plus a handful of essays by MacDonald that shine a light on how he came to create Lew Archer.
Collects The Zebra-Striped Hearse, The Chill and The Far Side of the Dollar. Annotated by perennial Macdonald Man Tom Nolan.
SHORT NON-FICTION AND ESSAYS
Macdonald's tale of a male lawyer representing a woman accused of theft becomes a made-for-television flick about a female lawyer stalked by a killer. ..
"An important new bio. According to the author bio Nolan reviews mystery fiction for The Wall Street Journal. A lot of focus on his private life ("...recounts Macdonald's relationships with Marshall McLuhan, Eudora Welty, and publisher Alfred A. Knopf, and chronicles his long-running literay rivalry with Raymond Chandler") rather than on his writing career. Respectful of Macdonald, yet still enlightening as to some previously obscure facts/episodes in his history. In Nolan's hands, Ken Millar/Ross Macdonald comes off as a much fuller and sometimes less confident author than he has seemed in earlier bios."
Astoundingly personal and captivating, part serious bibliographical, part biographical memoir, and part fanboy scrapbook, this collection of rare photos and lost interviews and essays pays tribute to one of the all-time greats of our genre, and is essential reading for anyone who ever looked for solutions to their own mysteries in a crime novel.
An article by Leonard Cassuto that reveals and discusses Macdonald's plans for the final Archer book, unfortunately never completed.
More about Ross Macdonald's life and the career of his famous fictional detective.
David Bowman's intriguing look at the real-life tragedy that haunted Ross Macdonald, and shaped his fiction. Originally published in Salon.
April 1999 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ross Macdonald's first Lew Archer detective novel, The Moving Target. To celebrate, the online literary magazine January published a major tribute, an impressive series of essays and interviews related to the author and his works. They also invited dozens of modern crime novelists -- from Lawrence Block and Sue Grafton, to Michael Connelly, S.J. Rozan, Richard North Patterson, Laura Lippman, and Richard Barre-- to share their thoughts on Macdonald's legacy. Includes The Case of the Split Man, an interview Tom Nolan, author of the then-new Ross Macdonald: A Biography. And January's crime editor J. Kingston Pierce weighed in with a moving intro, itself worth the price of admission. (And I guess I should mention I have a piece in it, too, but I think I'm there to cleanse the palate between the real writers...)
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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