Ross Macdonald: A Biography

by Tom Nolan

Published by Scribner

496 pages, 1999


Buy it online



Born in California but reared in Canada, he lived much of his adulthood among the nobs of pleasant Santa Barbara, California; yet he dispatched his private eye protagonist, Lew Archer, into the dingiest and most dangerous quarters of Southern California, there to track down malevolent teenagers while simultaneously unraveling generations of duplicity and connivance.





"By any standard he was remarkable," Tom Nolan writes in Ross Macdonald: A Biography, describing the novelist who is most often credited with bringing American detective fiction into the literary mainstream. "[Macdonald's] first books, patterned on [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a post-war 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.... 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.'"

The greatest part of Nolan's lengthy new book about the life and works of Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) is written in a similarly appreciative tone. A Los Angeles resident and mystery fiction critic for The Wall Street Journal, Nolan seems less interested in voicing skepticism about the enduring value of Macdonald's novels or probing at the raw corners of his numerous personal secrets than he does in composing a hagiography that also helps explain how crime fiction has evolved into a respectable genre. Several previous studies of Macdonald's work exist, but none has revealed so much about the author's life or his development as a detective fictionist.

By Nolan's description, Macdonald/Millar was a lonely and gentle, but also complex and often self-contradictory man. Although he was a brilliant graduate student in history at the University of Michigan, the author of a Ph.D. dissertation on the psychological criticism of British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Millar spent the majority of his 67 years spinning yarns about violence and venality, deceptions and congenital greed. Born in California but reared in Canada, he lived much of his adulthood among the nobs of pleasant Santa Barbara, California; yet he dispatched his private eye protagonist, Lew Archer, into the dingiest and most dangerous quarters of Southern California, there to track down malevolent teenagers while simultaneously unraveling generations of duplicity and connivance. Taking up his writing career where pioneers like Hammett and Chandler had left off, Millar elevated their genre. He toned down the wisecracking that had long been a staple of the fictional American gumshoe. His man Archer shed the sexual hang-ups and vestigial violence that had characterized Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Over the course of 18 novels, Millar turned Archer into a modern, more sensitive, more self-analytical figure whose greatest investigative talent was his ability to listen without judging. As he's been described before, Archer in his later years was "a therapist with a private investigator's license."

In giving necessary context to Millar's writing career, however, Nolan can't help but recount some of the more tragic and certainly less-reported elements of the author's existence. He recalls how Millar grew up poor and virtually fatherless in Ontario, Canada; how, as a boy, he was introduced to homosexuality and expressed his anger at the world through fighting and theft ("I'm amazed at some of the chances I took as a boy," Millar once admitted); how he stayed for over four decades in a frequently unpleasant marriage to fellow mystery novelist Margaret Millar; and how, after at least one attempted suicide and his initial refusal to seek professional help, he eventually agreed to psychiatric treatment (a "watershed event," as Millar once described it). What finally drove him to the analyst's couch were difficulties with his daughter Linda, who in 1956 was involved in a vehicular homicide and three years later -- on parole and under psychiatric care -- disappeared from her college dorm, setting off a widely publicized police hunt that led Millar to appeal through the media for his daughter to return home. (Linda Millar was finally located in Nevada, and subsequently told a harrowing tale about her days on the run.)

Parts of Ross Macdonald: A Biography read, as Nolan put it, "Just like a Ross Macdonald novel." But they show how the late author injected even the troubling aspects of his life (slightly disguised) into his fiction, filling his stories with children as lost as he was and adults scarred by past regrets and present torments. Millar's novels didn't seem as concocted or irrelevant as did those of many of his contemporaries, because he was writing from his experience as much as his imagination. "In these stories," Nolan explains, "ordinary families became the stuff of mystery; and there was always guilt enough to go around."

Shortly after the release of his excellent new biography, I had the opportunity to talk with Tom Nolan about how he researched Millar's past; the reasons Millar began writing detective fiction; the "benign conspiracy" that led him to bestsellerdom; and the existence of a never-finished 19th Lew Archer novel.


J. Kingston Pierce: The dust jacket of your book says that you've been interested in Ross Macdonald's work ever since you were 11 years old, which would've been in 1958 or 59. What spurred that interest?

Tom Nolan: I started reading mystery and detective stories when I was about seven or eight. I guess I was probably reading Hammett and Chandler when I was maybe 10 or 11. Then, in 1959, when his daughter Linda disappeared, well, that story was huge all over Southern California. You couldn't pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV that week without the story confronting you. I actually wrote a short story inspired by those events, which fortunately has been lost. And I remember seeing a book of his at that time, in a bookstore rack or something, and picking it up and saying, Wow, this is that man.

And that's when you started reading Macdonald's work?

No, I probably didn't start reading him for a few more years. But when I did, I thought the books were great, and I just kept reading them. And I would talk about them with people who shared my interest. But I always seemed to be a little more interested in them than other people.

In writing your Macdonald biography, you had access to a great trove of archived material, including 30 years of correspondence, his unpublished autobiographical novel, Winter Solstice, and a notebook memoir he'd left behind. When you started on your book, did you know that all of this material existed?

Well, not in specific detail. I knew there was an archive at the University of California-Irvine, and I had gone there and made contact with the people who were in charge of it. They gave me some kind of publicity sheet or something that vaguely described what was there. Then there is also material in other archives, which I found existed pretty early on. So I had a sense of a broad outline, but a lot of the specific things I didn't know were available -- such as that notebook you mentioned. And some of those things it took me quite a while to find, simply by going through cartons and every single piece of paper. I probably didn't find that notebook for a couple of years.

Finding it must've been incredibly exciting.

It was amazing. It was stunning to start reading this thing and realize what it was.

And he was extraordinarily candid in that notebook. Did he write it just for himself?

I'm quite certain he wrote it during his daughter's crisis, after her [1956 car] accident, when she was staying at home. And it's interesting what he did: He wrote it in the third person, though he wrote almost all of his books in the first person, which came much more naturally to him. When he wrote this notebook, which is all about himself and his family, he used the third person, as if it's a story.

Was he trying to separate himself -- if only psychologically -- from the troubling events of his life?

I think that was the effect, and I think it gave him that little distance that he needed to do this. But it adds to the fascination.

It seems odd that Macdonald should have saved so much material that would be useful to a biographer. After all, during his lifetime, he was extremely guarded about his personal history. Why did he save so much?

He enjoyed and found value in examining other writers' lives through biographies. A writer that he admired particularly, like [F. Scott] Fitzgerald, I think he spent a lot of time studying him, found fascination in connecting the life with the work, and vice-versa. And he would speculate on Hammett, have interesting insights regarding him. And those are just two who come to mind. I'm sure he did that with other writers, as well -- [W.H.] Auden, maybe; Coleridge, certainly. So he thought that was a useful and interesting activity.

As far as saving things -- he saved everything that had any sort of writing on it, I was told. Whereas his wife tended to just throw everything out when she was through with a novel.

Yet Millar/Macdonald spent much of his life trying not to reveal things about himself.

That's true, because I think he had things -- if not to hide, then at least things he wanted to keep private, or for various reasons was protective of. He certainly didn't feel like revealing the secrets of his youth to interviewers. And then, when his daughter had her difficulties, that was another large area that he really wanted to protect. And then when she had a child [James], that created another large reason for him to try and keep all of that material private. To protect the little boy.

Macdonald actually asked journalists who interviewed him not to tell things about his past.

Particularly about his daughter. I would say that was the only area that he did that in -- but he did it consistently. And sometimes it would be a condition of his being interviewed, that the interviewer wouldn't put that in their story. As I say, that was to protect her, and later to protect her child. Because [the Millars] really didn't want their grandchild to be reading these things about what his mother had gone through. And again, especially after she died [of a "cerebral accident" in 1970], they tried to protect her memory. I believe the little boy did not know these things, or at least he didn't know them until he was older.

How much do you think Millar's troubled childhood influenced his choice of a career writing about troubled people?

Oh, enormously. I think that initially he read certain kinds of books -- not just fiction, but non-fiction, psychology, philosophy -- to some extent, because he was trying to find ways to deal with life and with his problems. As far as fiction, I'm sure that [Charles] Dickens and that sort of fiction appealed to him because he could identify with the travails of Oliver Twist, and I think authors like [Edgar Allan] Poe and [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, people who probed the psychology of good and evil, or good and bad choices, appealed to him because he was wrestling with these things himself. Eventually, he tried to take the detective story and make it more interesting psychologically, able to explore some of these things that he was very interested in.

One of the most intriguing quotes in your book comes from Macdonald's friend, Don Pearce. He says, "Most people don't know what it is they've been saved from. [Millar] did. And he spent his life understanding it, and reliving it in a way in his books." Millar was exploring his fears and concerns in his fiction, and yet he might have been the only one who knew that at the time.

Of course his books are filled with these troubled kids, these troubled young guys. Sometimes they're teenagers, sometimes they're older. If you start examining and looking at it, there are all kinds of people in his books who, to some extent, represented [Macdonald] to himself.

If you'll notice, usually in a book where there's some kind of troubled fellow, there'll be a different sort of fellow who's in there. And these two kind of play off of each other, and they can be seen as alternate self-portraits of [Macdonald] -- not in a strict sense, but as examples, I think, of how he imagined he might have been in these situations. If he had gone a certain way, he could easily have been this sort of character; on the other hand, if he took a slightly different path, he could be this fellow over here. He indicates as much in a piece called "Writing The Galton Case" -- he gets specific in there about the characters [in that book] who he felt represented himself.

I was interested to read in your biography that Millar actually feared he was capable of great violence, that he had to maintain rigid control over himself and his impulses. What was the source of that fear?

He was very angry when he was a kid and when he was a teenager. He could be very upset about his lot in life. Growing up in this small town, with very little money, very little encouragement, pretty much on his own emotionally, intellectually. Although he had family, including his mother, he sort of had to fend for himself and raise himself and educate himself, although he went to school. He hungered for little bits of encouragement, and he had to make do with little bits of parenting or mentoring. He'd get to see his dad [an itinerant newspaper editor] maybe a couple of weeks a year, or maybe he'd spend part of a summer with him.

I don't think that most readers of Ross Macdonald's work realize that he was an intellectual, a Coleridge scholar, something of a genius in many ways. Yet he spent his life plowing a literary field that many critics thought was beneath him. Didn't Macdonald himself think that, at some point, he would turn away from crime fiction and do something more "important"?

For many years, he wanted to write other sorts of books. When he began writing detective novels, it was sort of a way to get into print, a way to get experience, and a way to make some money. Although, I hasten to add that he took pride in the genre and he took a lot of trouble to write his books carefully. He put a lot of effort into them; he wasn't just churning these things out, and he didn't dismiss them. He was proud of writing good mysteries.

But yes, for a long time he sort of thought of them as bread-and-butter books, things he was doing in the meantime as he gathered experience and grew as a writer. And then he hoped to write other kinds of things.

He did try to write one more "serious" novel, Winter Solstice.

Yes, he worked on that for a long time. He went back to working on it in 1958, but eventually that attempt sort of turned into The Galton Case.

You mean that he plucked out parts of Winter Solstice and stuck them into The Galton Case?

Yeah, but it would be more like ideas or situations that he used from his autobiographical novel.

How much of Winter Solstice exists?

There are some slightly different versions, either typed up or handwritten, more or less complete.

But Millar didn't feel that the novel was worth submitting?

He was not at all happy with it. But it's fascinating to read.

It's often been said that Macdonald borrowed the name of his detective, Lew Archer, from Miles Archer, of Maltese Falcon fame. But you say in your book that this isn't true.

No, I don't think it's true. He told people eventually that Archer's name had nothing to do with Sam Spade's partner. Although when he realized the similarity, he did play with that for a while, he did sort of suggest that it was intentional. But in later interviews, he admitted that it was strictly coincidental.

Where did the Archer name come from, then?

Well, it's kind of complicated. In my opinion, it comes from his mother's mother's name being Bowman. And when he was in college, he wrote a poem, "Wild Goose," in which he used Bowman and Archer interchangeably and symbolically. I quote a fragment of that poem in my book:

Thou sad-voiced sky-born Fury, thou storm-child of the North;

Swift arrow of His vengeance, what Bowman launched thee forth?

So this is sort of a mythical archer figure, you see. Or a kind of deity. I think Archer comes from Bowman. That's often how he would name characters: He would spin things off of reality.

The way he got Lew, well, I have my theory about that, too.

Didn't I read somewhere that it was derived from Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur?

Well, I think there's a figure in between. It's my intuitive leap that the person in between is an editor who bought stories from [Millar] in Toronto when he wrote his first stories in 1939. He sold those to church magazines that were published for young people, and one editor's name was Archer Wallace. So I think he made the mental association with Archer, then Archer Wallace, then Lew Wallace, and finally, Lew Archer.

After writing four non-series books, what led Millar to write his first Archer novel, The Moving Target?

After he had written those four books, the second two of which were published by [Alfred A.] Knopf, he felt that he had succeeded in a race he'd set for himself after he got out of the U.S. Navy [in 1946]. He'd given himself a year to see if he could make it as a full-time novelist, and he did it. So he felt that now was the time to get a little more serious, get down to that real or mainstream novel that he had been thinking about for years. He wrote much of this manuscript, which he called Winter Solstice. But he realized that it wasn't working, and if he were going to continue with it, it would take him longer than he could afford. So he put that book aside to write something more quickly, something that was colorful and exciting and commercial.

He decided to try his hand at a private eye novel. He had written a couple of private eye stories back in 1945, when he was still in the Navy, one of which won a prize in an Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine contest. So now he went back to the idea of writing a private eye novel. He thought at first about using the same character, Joe Rogers, who had been in those two earlier stories. But as soon as he got into it, he came up with a different -- better -- name.

So he had not, from the beginning, intended that Lew Archer would be a series character?

If not from the beginning, then from pretty soon into it. Probably before he finished the first book, he at least entertained the idea that he could do a series. I think that's one reason why he wanted to give him a better name.

Raymond Chandler was particularly ungenerous to Macdonald when the latter was starting to make a name for himself in this business. Chandler thought Macdonald's work was derivative of his own. He knocked the "pretentiousness" of Macdonald's phrasing and called him a "literary eunuch." What was the source of Chandler's animosity toward Macdonald?

I can only guess. But I think it all began with James Sandoe, who was a correspondent of Chandler's and an important mystery reviewer and critic [for the Chicago Sun]. Sandoe had had a lot to do with making Chandler's mainstream reputation. When he got his review copy of The Moving Target in 1949, he wrote to Chandler and said something like, Hey, this really interesting book has come from Knopf. I think this is quite striking. I know a lot of people have imitated you, but I think this fellow does the best job that I've ever seen. What do you think?

Chandler, then, got a copy of the book, and I think he felt almost beholden to point out differences and find fault with it. To say, Well, it's not really like me or as good as me... and let me tell you why.

Do you think, then, that if others hadn't tried to compare the two, that Chandler would have been more generous toward Macdonald?

It's hard to say, because there were a lot of people who started writing private eye novels after the war. Chandler was still writing them, but quite intermittently; there were many years between his books. And a lot of fellows were rushing in to fill the vacuum. Macdonald was one of several. But I think the fact that he got singled out immediately for so much praise and immediately became the top guy of the post-war years, at least in the critics' opinions, rankled Chandler. After that, anything he said or wrote about Macdonald was a put-down. And when Ken Millar found out about it, he took it very personally and felt that Chandler had, in essence, tried to destroy his career as it was only just beginning.

Still, Macdonald seemed ultimately to get over his anger at Chandler. After all, he later penned that now-famous blurb about how Chandler "wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence."

I think it's a wonderful irony that, after Macdonald became so successful, he was asked to give quotes about Chandler, after what Chandler had said about him. But he always tried to separate his feelings about Chandler, the writer, from his feelings about Chandler, the person. In fact, Millar went out of his way not to comment about Chandler, the person, publicly. But he always gave Chandler, the writer, more than his due, especially as the years went by. And he was sincere.

Do you think Macdonald was so generous about helping later writers, like Roger Simon and Frederick Zackel, because of the poor treatment he'd received from Chandler?

Oh, I know that's the case. He told people that. But that's just one reason. He knew how important it was to help young people. He knew how much he had valued and had needed the bits of encouragement that he'd gotten growing up. And helping younger writers was one of the ways that he repaid the good things that had happened to him.

And yet Macdonald wasn't generous at all with writer Mickey Spillane. Why was he so critical of Spillane?

Well, everybody in the Mystery Writers of America and all the critics of that time [the 1950s] loathed Spillane and hated his books and thought they were vile and, if not obscene, certainly reprehensible and of little or no redeeming value. Millar was not alone in that. He felt that [Spillane] did not have moral or aesthetic control. [Millar] made careful distinctions between the hard-boiled school that Hammett founded, and these other people [like Spillane] who had sort of taken the lurid or violent aspects of the hard-boiled school and abused them, as he saw it.

Macdonald is frequently criticized for having often reused themes, especially in his later novels. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

I think it's a fair observation. I don't think it need be a criticism. I think from his point of view, they were like refinements. And I think someone asked him about that, and he said: "No. Every time you do it, you dig deeper. It's like going to a shrink; you're telling the same story every time, but at the same time you're discovering different aspects of it, and of yourself."

Really, I think it's unfair for people to criticize him for the similarities of his plots, because a lot of other people wrote much more similar books. If you read through the oeuvre of Agatha Christie, you see that she would recycle things almost wholesale. If you're writing a book a year, there are only so many stories you can come up with. I think he did it with a lot more distinction and invention and subtlety than people give him credit for.

Let's talk about the "benign conspiracy" that first elevated Macdonald to the bestseller lists, beginning with The Goodbye Look (1969). This conspiracy has become legendary, and been turned into something rather sinister. Yet your researches show it to have been well intentioned. How did this conspiracy come about?

There were several people who were all working in New York at the time [that The Goodbye Look was published], and who had been reading Macdonald for years, usually since their adolescence or college years. These were intelligent young readers who found him pretty much on their own, and they'd fallen in love with his stuff. And several of them went to work in the New York journalism or publishing fields, and they sort of found each other. And they all thought [Macdonald] was great, and they all thought it was a shame that the world-at-large didn't know too much about him.

These people were in a position to do something to change this situation. They said, Let's try to see if we can make [Macdonald] known in a significant way to the world-at-large. And when [The Goodbye Look] was in the pipeline, and they knew it would come out in a few months, they decided to have a sort of campaign to create interest in it. And I think they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. That was the flowering of this benign conspiracy.

Who was involved in the conspiracy?

One of the people involved was John Leonard, who was assistant editor of The New York Times Book Review. Another was Ray Sokolov, who was working at Newsweek as a critic and arts writer. Those were the two main guys, and they drew in other people, like Walter Clemons, who was Leonard's colleague at the Book Review. Clemons, who had not read any Macdonald till Leonard urged him to, also had this friend who had been urging him since college to read Macdonald, and that was William Goldman, who had written the screenplay for Harper [based on The Moving Target].

So Clemons and Leonard got Goldman to review The Goodbye Look, and it got parlayed through various circumstances into this wonderful cover review, accompanied by Leonard's interview [with Macdonald] in an elaborate package that quite startled the literary establishment. And then later, in Newsweek, Sokolov wrote a cover piece about his next book [The Underground Man], and John Leonard got Eudora Welty to review that one for the Times Book Review, because he had learned quite by chance that she, too, was a great Macdonald fan.

Are you suggesting that, without this benign conspiracy, Macdonald might today be a much more obscure novelist?

I'm glad you asked that, because I don't think it's necessarily true. Something that gets overlooked is that his reputation really was growing. This conspiracy is fun to learn about, but it didn't come out of thin air. His time was coming, and if these guys hadn't precipitated it, I think something similar might well have happened. He was already beginning to be reviewed on the main book pages. The academic critics were noticing him, and he was getting good reviews in journals like The Kenyon Review. So people were already paying attention to him as a "serious" writer before these benign conspirators worked their wonders.

How successful do you think Macdonald was in establishing the literary potential of crime fiction?

I think he was very successful in realizing a lot of its potential. I don't think that he made the detective novel or mystery fiction into something that it hadn't been before, so much as he was one of the people who was able to do a lot with it. I think he took pleasure in the idea that he was combining the mainstream novel with the detective novel, to create something that was unique in its own right and valuable in its own right. He expanded the form. He brought into whatever kind of book he was writing qualities, aspects, and properties of the best literature that he was able to write.

I'm struck by the fact that, despite all of Macdonald's plaudits in the press and his support from the reading public, he didn't receive many awards from his peers. The British Crime Writers Association seemed more appreciative of Macdonald than did his American contemporaries. Yes, Macdonald was, ultimately, given the Mystery Writers of America's Grandmaster Award, but that was only near the end of his career and after being pretty much badgered into it. Why didn't he enjoy more peer acclaim in the States? Was there a certain jealousy that was the result of his notoriety?

A "malign conspiracy," perhaps? [Laughs] I can only guess. I've asked people who were active in the MWA at that time why his best books weren't even nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award. He got some nominations, but he didn't get an Edgar for any individual book, whereas his wife did. They could only speculate. But one idea was that, because he wrote in the private eye subgenre, people sort of took his books for granted. If they wanted to give an award, they wanted to give it to a one-of-a-kind book. There was also a period where the MWA was prone to give awards to English people, because it didn't want to make the American members feel bad.

When I had the chance to interview Millar/Macdonald in 1981, he claimed he was writing a 19th Archer story. Was he, in fact, working on another novel after The Blue Hammer (1976)?

He was trying to work on a book, but I don't think he got very far.

The way he would work on things, he would keep different plot notebooks. So he would have various plots going or potentially going at different times. He would write in his notebooks on various ideas, and then he would pick one and put the others aside. And he would write a certain novel [from that notebook]. Then, when it came time to write another novel, he would go back to his notebooks, and he'd look through them and consider different ideas, and he would maybe take notes and write a few sample pages. And then he would pick one [notebook] and put the other ones aside again. The Blue Hammer, for instance -- that plot began in his notebooks 15 years before he started writing the novel. And there were a lot of books like that.

So late in his life, after The Blue Hammer, there were a couple of books that he was trying to begin on. These are things that I have found; there may be others that didn't make their way into the archives. But of what I saw, there were a couple of stories or potential books that he worked on at various stages, including as late as he was working on anything.

And what were these stories about?

There's one that takes place in Winnipeg, at least partly. It draws upon his years there in the late 1920s, when he was living with this aunt and uncle and going to this private school. And there's another story, that there are notes for at least, that's sort of from a similar time period -- about a young fellow in the late 1920s or early 30s, set in rural Canada. So he would play around with these things. And at one point I think he thought to combine them. I believe, finally, what he thought he might try to do was to write some kind of Archer novel that would draw upon his own Canadian youth and in some way connect Lew Archer with Canada, so that it might turn out that Archer was actually Canadian.

Wait. Didn't one of the early Archer novels say that Archer was from Long Beach, California?

Well, we know he was raised in Long Beach. But I don't think we know that he was born there.

So just as Ken was born in California and then whisked away to Canada, Lew Archer -- who was his mirror image, in some ways -- might well have been born in Canada and brought to California and raised here. So a lot of his aspects as an outsider or somebody who is in California, but not necessarily of California, would be explained in a logical and powerful manner.

Did Macdonald have a title for this final book?

Not that I know of. You'll find lists of titles sometimes in a notebook, and to some extent, they were interchangeable for him. So no, I can't give you a title for that one.

But he signed a contract [with Knopf, in 1979], so he intended to write another book. And it's my deduction that this [Canada novel] had to be what he was working on.

And how much of this 19th Archer novel exists?

There are maybe a few pages, something like a chapter.

How well do you think Macdonald has held up as a detective novelist of note since his death from Alzheimer's in 1983?

I think he's held up splendidly. I think his books are terrific. Most of them could stand with the best in the field, certainly. The things that he did made him a very individual writer and a master in his field. I'd put The Chill, for instance, up against anything in the field.

And Macdonald's commercial success certainly raised interest in and brought new respect to crime fiction, in general.

I believe his success opened up the possibility that other people in the field could have that same kind of commercial success. It also demonstrated that people could explore further in the genre. I think the success that a lot of writers have now came out of his groundbreaking success. And I think a lot of the freedom that they feel to write different kinds of books comes out of what he demonstrated could be done.

Having spent years researching Ross Macdonald/Ken Millar, and after talking with hundreds of people about him, is there any question you would like to be able to ask him?

If I had the guts, I might ask him what he meant when he wrote in his notebook memoir that he had attempted suicide [in the early 1950s]. I know that in plot notes he wrote shortly after that, involving a fellow who undergoes similar crises, he has somebody contemplating suicide through "defenestration" -- throwing himself out of a window. I'd want to know if he tried that, or how he would've tried it.

More realistically, I might ask him, if he had it all to do over again, what he might have done differently? Or, alternately, did he wish he had followed his wife's urging and become a full-time writer sooner? And if he had, would that have effected the sort of stories he later wrote? Might he have tried other things than mystery fiction? | April 1999


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.


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