Ross Macdonald

Ross Macdonald  (Ken Millar, 1915 – 1983 ) is, with Hammett and Chandler, the other member of “the big three of the American hard-boiled detective novel,” as scholar Matthew Bruccoli has called them. 1 His detective Lew Archer still resembles Spade and Marlowe – he’s single, a brawler who smokes and drinks and likes women — but the roots of his cases run deep into family dramas and generational conflict. The seventeen Archer novels develop what was implicit in Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: the genre’s capacity for social analysis and criticism.


ross-macdonaldLike Chandler, Macdonald was born in the U.S but raised abroad, so that he returned with an outsider’s perspective. Born Ken Millar in Los Gatos, California, on December 13, 1915, the novelist’s parents returned to Canada when he was four. His father Jack was an athlete, atheist, itinerant publisher and harbor pilot in Vancouver, who wrote imitations of the Scottish dialect poems of Robert Burns. His mother Annie (nee Moyer) was a nurse who became a Christian Scientist. 2 They argued violently, and Annie took her only child to her hometown of Kichener, Ontario in 1920. Like Chandler, Millar lived at first with his mother and maternal grandparents, who were Mennonites. “Their presence caused problems,” writes biographer Tom Nolan: “They moved out… into furnished rooms. The boy blamed himself for this, as he’d blamed himself for his father’s having gone away.” 3

Millar led a Dickensian childhood. His impoverished mother took him on the streets to beg and almost put him in an orphanage. But an older cousin took him in, and Millar spent several idyllic years on the shores of Georgian Bay. When the cousin’s wife died, however, Millar returned to his mother’s rented rooms and grandparents’ Mennonite household. At eleven he went to live with an aunt, who sent him to board at a polished Anglican prep school in Winnipeg. Like young Chandler, Millar found Latin, French, and math to his taste, rising to the head of his class. But his aunt lost her money in the 1929 crash, so Millar shipped home to Kichener, living with relatives and attending the local “Collegiate and Vocational” school. Despite his academic talents and a developing literary ambition, Millar was troubled: he drank and fought continuously; he stole from school lockers and stores, and he experimented homosexually. By his early teens he was smoking, gambling, and passing days at the pool hall, where he sensed a relation between the slot machines and the wealth of certain prominent local men. He still read, especially mysteries, and bothered him that he never encountered this sort of real life in fiction. 4 At this same pool emporium, he discovered The Maltese Falcon: “As I stood there absorbing Hammett’s novel, the slot machines at the back of the shop were clanking and whirring, and in the billiard room upstairs the perpetual poker game was being played. Like iron filings magnetized by the book in my hands, the secret meanings of the city began to organize themselves around me.” 5

Life on the street almost claimed Millar, whose mid-class rank at graduation precluded any aid for college. He exiled himself to a relative’s ranch, where he worked days, read nights, and developed a code that stressed self-discipline and endurance. “Hell,” he wrote later, “lies at the bottom of the human heart, and you find it by expressing your personality.” 6 When Millar’s indigent father died in 1932, he left a forgotten insurance policy of $2,212 to his wife, who bought her son an annuity that covered four years of college. After a year at Waterloo College, Millar transferred to the University of Western Ontario. 7 He made the swimming and wrestling teams and acted in plays. His mother came to live with him, at his invitation, but within a few months she died of a brain tumor. On her small legacy Millar bicycled through Europe, returning to become a physically and academically formidable presence on campus. At graduation time, he reacquainted himself with Margaret Sturm,

Margaret Millar
Margaret Sturm Miller

a high school girlfriend who, like Millar, hoped to become a writer. Within weeks they were lovers, marrying in 1938. So that he would always have a job, Millar insisted on obtaining a teaching certificate from the University of Toronto. When daughter Linda was born, he took a job at the same Kichener high school the couple had graduated from.

Margaret Millar detested Kichener and took to bed with a severe depression. Ken brought her mysteries, including Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, just published. Inspired, she wrote a novel, which he plotted and edited. Doubleday bought it. Then Ken received a teaching assistant-ship at the University of Michigan. The book sale financed their move to Ann Arbor, where he studied with the poet W. H. Auden (whom he called “a remarkable kind of saint”), took classes, and began a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Coleridge. 8 Margaret published mystery novels two, three, and four, with Ken working on the skeletons and supplying final polish. Despite their editorial teamwork, the Millars fought privately, cut each other in public conversation, and frequently threw things, including fists, at each other. 9 Bored with academia, Ken stole time to write his own thriller, The Dark Tunnel, which Dodd Mead published in 1944. He applied to the U.S. Navy, which had earlier rejected him on medical grounds; but when the U.S. entered World War II, he was accepted for communications training. 10

The Navy took the Millars to Southern California, where their positive impressions mingled with Chandler’s descriptions and the magic of returning to Ken’s birthplace. Millar’s ship showed the Chandler-scripted Double Indemnity (from James M. Cain’s novel) and Murder, My Sweet (from Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely). Chandler, Millar wrote to his wife while working on a new book, was “the only one that carries me away.” 11 Millar’s own effort, Trouble Follows Me (1946), did not succeed like the master’s works. However, Margaret published another novel to excellent reviews, bought them a house in Santa Barbara, and went to work in the Hollywood studios, all before Ken returned from the Navy. 12

Margaret’s success was a sore point. Ken felt the need to make his own way, but he accepted her support for a year while he wrote. He sent Blue City to Knopf, publisher of Hammett, Cain, and Chandler; they published the book in 1947 and another, The Three Roads, in 1948. Both got good reviews. Meanwhile Millar picked up and put down a manuscript he called “The Snatch,” in which he toyed with a series detective. The detective would be named Lew Archer, after Sam Spade’s partner Miles Archer and because he was a Gemini. That his initials formed L. A., where he worked at 8411 ½ Sunset Blvd., was a happy coincidence. 13 Drawing liberally on Hammett and Chandler for plot, characterization and tone, Millar sent Archer to a beautiful seaside resort, Santa Teresa, in which the rich exploited the poor, especially the Mexicans. Knopf thought this book a come-down. Millar apologized, proposing pages of changes and acceding to a new title, The Moving Target. 14 To protect his reputation, he used the pseudonym of “John Macdonald.” This was the ignoble birth of what the New York Times would later call “the finest series of detective stories ever written by an American.” 15

Moving TargetDespite this success, Millar returned to the U. of Michigan to finish his doctoral dissertation; as before, he thought that teaching would keep him economically independent if his novels didn’t sell. But the Millars missed each other desperately and reunited in Ann Arbor. While he was there, Knopf dreamed up an author’s photo — a trench coated Millar in silhouette, smoking a cigarette – to complement the new pseudonym and to generate publicity. Anthony Boucher, the new mystery reviewer for the New York Times, whom Millar had cultivated, was among those who praised The Moving Target when it appeared in 1949 with the author-as-tough-guy photo.

It was only with his sixth novel, The Drowning Pool(1950) that John “Ross” Macdonald appeared: the change avoided confusion with New York writer John D. MacDonald, who would later invent Florida detective Travis McGee. Back in Santa Barbara, Millar began to study the rich of adjacent Montecito and even joined the Coral Casino Beach Club, eavesdropping on its members, teaching himself to platform dive, and swimming his daily half mile in the sea. 16 “Montecito was a hotbed of hard drinking, wife-swapping, and all kinds of scandalous stuff,” said a friend of the Millars. “This was a dangerous social set,” writes biographer Nolan, “Witty and accomplished, but reckless in pursuit of pleasure.” 17

When a disgruntled Chandler left Knopf, Millar became their star. Like Hammett, Cain, and Chandler, he dealt directly with the publisher. Besides his Montecito research, Millar attended trials at the Santa Barbara County courthouse with his wife. “Eventually you could find the thread of the heinous murder or whatever crime led to the trial in one of their books,” said a local lawyer. 18 Through the courts the Millars met police, lawyers, judges, and prosecutors. At Millar’s first trial a witness dropped dead after testifying.

By the time Millar defended his dissertation in August 1951, he had published eight books. It was an extraordinary dissertation, but the defense was marred by faculty suspicions of his mystery writing. “Ken resembled Coleridge,” said a friend: “Both of them had profound awareness of the chief intellectual currents of their time – the subtle intellectual philosophical side of life – and wanted to synthesize them; and on the other hand both Coleridge and Ken had serious knowledge and experience of the dark side.” 19

Back home, the Millars’ family drama erupted. Their eleven-year-old daughter became unruly, Margaret manifested symptoms of various illnesses, and Millar himself apparently attempted suicide. Details of Millar’s life at this point are not clear. 20 The crisis amplified the writer’s long-standing interest in Freud and led to his eventual psychoanalysis. Millar said analysis freed him from Chandler’s influence. Any old plot would do for Chandler, he said; it was the master’s embellishment of scenes that made him great. But Millar plotted carefully, and the “revealed plots” of his apparent crimes were always significant, usually in a Freudian way. Besides Chandler, his nemesis was Mickey Spillane, the best-selling author of Mike Hammer, whose crude sexuality Millar was constantly working to refute.

In the early 1950s Millar published yearly as “John Ross Macdonald”: The Way Some People Die (1951), The Ivory Grin (1952), Meet Me at the Morgue (1953), Find a Victim (1954), and The name is Archer (1955). The complete change to “Ross Macdonald” came with The Barbarous Coast in 1955. But tragedy among the privileged, the sort that Millar wrote about, then struck the Millars. Daughter Linda, sixteen, drove the car Ken her father had bought her into three boys, killing one, and then into a parked car, throwing its driver sixty feet. 21 Like characters in one of his novels, the Millars clamed up, hired counsel, and protected their daughter, who was first sedated and then dosed with sodium pentathal (truth serum). The irony of their reaction was not lost on the writer, who had criticized such California behavior (and used hit-run accidents as a paradigm of local immorality in his novels): he filled several notebooks with self-recrimination. Linda attempted suicide, then was hospitalized. 22 At grand jury proceedings, Linda refused to testify on advice of counsel, and Ken Millar, taking the stand, did the same. They became the subjects of city-wide gossip and debate. In return for probation, Linda eventually wrote a brief confession, but Santa Barbarans were outraged, and local papers printed juicy excerpts of probation reports, school counselors’ records and friends’ statements, showing the Millars in the worst way. Many of these blamed her parents’ writing, which Linda reputedly read and internalized. 23

The Millars sold their two houses and moved to Menlo Park in northern California, where Linda enrolled in high school in 1956 and Millar began two years of intensive psychoanalysis. “My half-suppressed Canadian years, my whole childhood and youth, rose like a corpse from the bottom of the sea to confront me,” Millar wrote. “I had reached the point when I could not see anything clearly ahead, I needed help, and I got it. What it did for me was to take me deeper into life.” 24

Millar also finished The Doomsters (1958), which he intended to “close off” an era in the Lew Archer series. He felt that this plot-driven novel “marked a clean break with the Chandler tradition.” Indeed, Bruccoli has written that this “Archer has a wider range of expression because he is less encumbered by the requirements of his character.” But the sales of this and the preceding novels were disappointing, and the Millars had large legal and medical bills. 25

Millar’s era of personal progress culminated inJohn Ross Macdonald The Galton Case (1959), an admittedly Freudian work that broke new ground in the genre. It was “a variation on the Oedipus story,” he wrote; “[it] provides Oedipus with a conscious reason for turning against his father and suggests that the latter’s death was probably not unintended.” 26 But the novel was not initially recognized as either a turning point in the writer’s career or in the history of the genre.

With Linda graduated and enrolled at the University of California – Davis, the Millars contemplated new homes and audaciously decided to return to Santa Barbara. Ken Millar forged a closer relation to the English department at the University of California – Santa Barbara. 27 Despite slow-selling hardbacks, Millar had become Bantam’s number one paperback author by 1958. Then Pocket Books jumped in and reissued the early novels. Television and the movies bought rights. 28

The Millars had one great year in Santa Barbara; then Linda, after several warnings for drinking, disappeared from her dorm at Davis. Millar conducted a state-wide manhunt, with deliberate newspaper and television publicity – even broadcasting an emotional message — that reopened his old wounds. He sped around California and Nevada frantically. Linda’s flight violated her parole terms, but when she was finally found in Reno, the Millars persuaded authorities to allow her psychiatric treatment at U.C.L.A. Millar too required hospitalization, having suffered heart damage. 29

The Millars needed money, so he wrote a non-Archer novel, The Ferguson Affair (1961), which read like an apology to the Santa Barbara community for Linda’s exploits. He hired a Hollywood agent to sell an Archer television series. When his strength returned, Millar began an Archer novel, Wycherley Woman (1961) Apparently better, the twenty-two-year-old Linda married a U.C.L.A. engineering major. With The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), Millar began to rely increasingly on lawyers and friends for the research in his manuscripts and depended on his memory for details of L.A., which he didn’t like to visit. 30

Millar then wrote seven Archer novels in nine years, each book advancing his trademark themes a bit. “All explore the problems of paternity or identity in terms of the resurrected past,” writes Bruccoli, but “each novel is fresh.” Along with The Chill (1964) and The Far Side of the Dollar(1965) in this group, Black Money (1966) uses plot reversals to strip away layers of specious identity. The reviews were increasingly good. The success of a movie version of The Moving Target (Harper, 1966, staring Paul Newman) put Millar over the top. Then with The Goodbye Look(1969), Millar’s twenty-first novel, he had his first best-seller. The novel went through eight hardcover printings and 125 paperback ones, becoming a best-seller in Europe as well. 31

The Millars, long-time bird-watchers, became increasingly involved in local ecological causes. They worked for land-use planning, preservation of the Santa Barbara Channel, where whales migrated; they gave up smoking and cut back on drinking. When the 1964 Coyote Canyon fire came within a few hundred yards of their house, Millar stayed behind to hose down the house. Only a wind shift saved him. Linda Millar died unexpectedly in her sleep of natural causes in November 1970; her son became a part of the Millars’ life.

undergroundmanThe Underground Man (1971), one of Millar’s best novels, employs the fire as a setting. It received front-of-the-book-section reviews, including one by Eudora Welty. This and the next book reflected his ecological focus; both Millars were active in the protests against the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which is the central event of Sleeping Beauty (1973). The Mystery Writers of America gave Millar their Grand Master Award in 1974, and in 1976 he published The Blue Hammer, which he termed a “comeback book” after the relative slackness of the ecological novels. After his twenty-fourth novel, Millar began to experience memory problems, which were diagnosed in 1981 as Alzheimer’s. He died in a rest home at sixty-seven on July 11, 1983.

1 Bruccoli, Contemporary Authors 63, 295. 2 Nolan, Tom. Ross Macdonald (New York: Scribner’s, 1999), 16-17. 3 Nolan, 19-20. 4 Nolan, 31. 5 Millar, in Nolan, 32. 6 Nolan, 34. 7 Nolan 35-36. 8 Nolan, 50-51, 54, 56. 9 Nolan, 63-67. 10 Nolan, 66. 11 Millar, in Nolan, 71. 12 Nolan, 71-78. 13 Nolan, 92. 14 Nolan, 98-101. 15 Times review, in Nolan, 101. 16 Nolan, 96. 17 Friend in Nolan, 110. 18 Lawyer in Nolan, 113-15. 19 Friend in Nolan, 125. 20 Nolan, 127. 21 Nolan, 163-64. 22 Nolan, 167. 23 Nolan, 169-70, 175. 24 Millar, in Bruccoli, Macdonald, 54. 25 Bruccoli, 55-56, 59. 26 Millar, in Bruccoli, 62. 27 Nolan,185. 28 Nolan, 197. 29 Nolan, 213. 30 Nolan, 228-29. 31 Bruccoli 79, 94.