by ZJ Czupor

Fame, Fortune, and Misfortune

In the 1970s, he was the most popular read and critically acclaimed novelist. Literary critics considered him the heir apparent to Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and critics included him in the “holy trinity” of hardboiled crime writers.

He admittedly created plots which were semi-autobiographical as he drew upon his own traumas and personal tragedies. He gained fame and fortune, rising from poverty and abandonment, gained critical literary acclaim, and yet suffered deep misfortune.

The author is American Canadian Kenneth Millar (1915-1983), who is better known by his pen name Ross Macdonald and his series of hardboiled novels featuring detective Lew Archer.

Macdonald also used the pen names of John Macdonald (his father’s first and middle names) and John Ross Macdonald, borrowing “Ross” from a favorite cousin. He finally settled on Ross Macdonald and continued using that pen name to avoid confusion with his fellow mystery writer John D. MacDonald (1916-1986), who was writing under his real name.

Through his literary career under his own name and three pen names, Macdonald wrote twenty-seven novels and sixteen short stories, plus several essays and articles.

Starting out, Macdonald wrote four standalone thrillers from 1944-1980 under his real name Kenneth Millar (pronounced “Mill-er”). Those novels, all published by Alfred A. Knopf, have since been reissued as written by Ross Macdonald. But the company refused to publish his first Archer novel, which he had begun in 1947. Knopf editors rejected the quality of his writing calling it “perfectly impossible.” The company finally accepted his work in 1949 after many revisions and a change of title from The Snatch to The Moving Target. That novel appeared on bookstands under his pen name John Macdonald.

In between those years while writing his first four novels, his detective Lew Archer began to take shape in a short story “Find the Woman” but credited to Ken Millar (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 1946). The magazine held a short story contest which Macdonald entered. Beforehand, he wrote two stories “Death by Air” and “Death by Water,” both starring a Los Angeles detective named Joe Rogers. But he scrapped the second story and retitled “Death by Air,” as “Find the Woman,” and entered it. He won fourth place and $300 in prize money. An up-and-coming writer named William Faulkner came in second.

Years later, Macdonald’s biographer Tom Nolan included both short stories and a third in his 2001 collection of lost Macdonald stories (Stranger in Town), which Nolan edited. “Find the Woman” was re-written, and Noland said the detective Joe Rogers was changed into Lew Archer.

Macdonald fashioned Archer as a 35-year-old divorced former cop-turned-private eye in Los Angeles. He was a tough guy, but with humanity, sensitive and self-analytical. Macdonald described Archer in his later years as “a therapist with a private investigator’s license.”

New York Times critic John Leonard (1939-2008) said Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become “a major American novelist.” Ironically, since Macdonald based Archer on Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe, Chandler panned Macdonald’s first novel, calling it “the work of a literary eunuch” and his phrasing “rather repellent.”

On the other hand, author, and literary critic Anthony Boucher (1911-1968), in a New York Times book review, called the novel, “the most human and disturbing novel of the hardboiled school in many years.” The 1966 film, Harper,starring Paul Newman, was based on this novel with a script written by William Goldman (1931-2018).

Goldman, who would later become an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, called the Archer novels “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” (from a cover review of The Goodbye Look, New York Review of Books, 1969).

On his sixth Archer novel, The Barbarous Coast (1956) he began using the pen name “Ross Macdonald.” And on his novel The Galton Case (1959) Macdonald said he “felt he had made a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition.” This was the novel that changed direction for Macdonald. Two years later, The Doomsters (1961) would reveal a more mature Lew Archer “who began to understand people less as a detective and more as an emphatic human being.” (Tom Nolan interview, CrimeReads, April 12, 2019).

Macdonald biographer and mystery fiction critic for The Wall Street Journal, Tom Nolan, said, “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.'”

After his tenth Archer novel, Macdonald finally made the bestseller lists, and he would go on to write a total of seventeen Lew Archer novels. He described Archer as one “who sees crime not in terms of polarized good and evil but as a complicated web of pain and human weakness.” In his 1969 novel, The Goodbye Look, Archer says, “I have a secret passion for mercy. But justice is what keeps happening to people.”

Kenneth Millar was born in Los Gatos, California but raised in Canada. He grew up poor and was four when his father abandoned the family in Ontario. He and his mother moved often across four provinces to live with relatives. The loss of his father and early trauma would become themes in many of his novels. As a youngster, he said he discovered a Hammett novel, then when he learned the library had others in a restricted area because of adult content, he broke in at night to read them.

While studying at the University of Western Ontario, he chanced upon Margaret Sturm, a high school sweetheart. They married the day after his graduation in 1938. A year later, their daughter, Linda Jane, was born. He taught high school for a while and began writing in his spare time.

As a side note, his wife Margaret Millar would become an award-winning and acclaimed writer of more than twenty-five psychological mystery novels. She was a two-time Edgar winner. One of the very few times their work appeared together in print was in 1931 when their high school magazine, The Grumbler, published their short stories in the same issue. One of the reasons Macdonald chose a pseudonym is because Margaret achieved first recognition as the writer named Millar, although she preferred to pronounce it as “Mill-AR.”

In between his undergraduate work and graduate work, he spent four years in the U.S. Navy as a communications officer and upon his discharge in 1946, the family moved to Santa Barbara, California, which would play a major setting in both his and his wife’s novels.

He later enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1952. He studied under poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973), who felt that mystery or detective fiction could rise to the level of literature, and he encouraged Millar’s interest in the genre. Millar wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

Over the years, his writing matured as California changed in the 60s where prosperity collided with corruption and the abuse of power. He wrote less of hoodlums and gangsters and began focusing on dysfunctional families, family secrets, and dubious characters, and the new money that spawned sex, drugs, and violence.

But all was not well on the home front. He stayed for forty years in an unpleasant marriage. While he pronounced his last name as Miller, she preferred to pronounce her last name as “Mill-AR.”

Their marriage was rocky but also friendly and healthy. They were proud of each other’s literary achievements, but also kept count of how many books each had published. In the early years of their marriage, Margaret out produced Macdonald but in later years, when his output and fame caught up to hers, it frustrated her when journalists, unaware of her career, called the home and asked if she was “Mrs. Macdonald.”

In 1962, in a story that made national headlines, his sixteen-year-old daughter, Linda Jane (1946-2010), was driving while intoxicated and drove her car into three pedestrian teenage boys. One died and two were hospitalized. She fled the scene of the accident. Distraught, she purposely drove into another car in an attempt at suicide. Later, while the police were driving her to the hospital, she tried to jump from the car. Somewhat later, she tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists with a razor. Her parents sent her to a mental hospital, sixty miles away from Santa Barbara.

With mounting legal bills, Macdonald begged his publisher for an advance on his recent novel, The Barbarous Coast. He eventually received several thousand dollars to help cover the expenses. The Millars then sold their home and left Santa Barbara for Menlo Park, California, where Linda finished high school.

Three years later, in 1959, while on parole and under psychiatric care, Linda disappeared from her college dorm. Millar sent out an appeal through the news media for her to return home. After an extensive search, a bar patron in Reno, Nevada recognized Linda.

Linda later married and had a son but continued suffering from mental instability. She suffered a minor stroke and one night in 1970, at the age of thirty-one, died in her sleep.

After Linda’s death, Macdonald turned to Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty (1909-2001) for solace. They corresponded passionately, though were never lovers. Their written exchange between 1970-1982 was published as Meanwhile There Are Letters (ed. Suzanne Marrs, Tom Nolan, 2015).

In Nolan’s biography, he said the Millar family pretended to be happy, but instead called them deranged, full of anger, emotional neglect, competitive spirit, and manipulation. Critics have assumed that both Ken and Margaret Millar used their daughter’s troubles as plot devices in their own novels.

Interestingly, many of his Archer novels are haunted by themes of lost children, adults facing past regrets, and family secrets, wealth and poverty, ambition and deceit, poverty, abandonment, and instability. Biographer and mystery fiction critic for The Wall Street Journal, Tom Nolan said, “ordinary families became the stuff of mystery; and there was always guilt enough to go around.” (Ross Macdonald: A Biography, Tom Nolan, Scribner, 1999).

In 1974, he boasted to friends his net worth was more than $1million (equal to more than $6 million today).

Macdonald completed his twenty-fourth and last novel, The Blue Hammer (1976) before his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Even though she was nearly blind, Margaret cared for him until his death in 1983, at the age of sixty-seven. She outlived him by eleven years.

Crime writer Gary Philips said, “His legacy is more than his books, though that is significant enough. What he also did was inspire writers and readers to see the P.I. story as something much more than plot and dialogue—he dared you to look for meaning.” (January magazine, April 1999).

Author’s Notes:

Ross Macdonald’s astrological sign was Sagittarius, “the archer,” which he chose as a last name for his new detective. He also paid tribute to the fictional detective Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, as Archer was killed in the beginning of Dashiell Hammett’s (1894-1961) The Maltese Falcon (1930). Then, he derived his detective’s first name, “Lew” from Lewis Wallace (1827-1905), the author of the historical novel Ben-Hur (1880). Finally, he patterned his detective on Raymond Chandler’s (1888-1959) fictional detective Philip Marlowe.

Hammett and Chandler’s novels were also published by Alfred A. Knopf, so critics viewed Macdonald as their heir apparent when his debut Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, was published by Knopf in 1949. He authored more books than Hammett and Chandler combined. Boucher called Macdonald the best writer of the three.

At the time of his death, Macdonald “was the best-known and most highly regarded crime fiction writer in America,” said his biographer Tom Nolan and claimed while no accurate estimates are available, it’s assumed he sold millions of books. claimed Macdonald had “Stephen King-like sales.”

Macdonald won numerous awards including: the Silver Dagger from British Crime Writers Association (1964); Gold Dagger from CWA (1965); the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1974, the same year he boasted to friends his net worth was more than $1million (equal to more than $6 million today); and “The Eye,” the lifetime achievement award from The Private Eye Writers of America (1981). In 1956, he served as MWA’s president.

Two of his novels were adapted into film, Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975) both starring Paul Newman. His novel, The Underground Man, was made into a TV feature starring Peter Graves (1974); and in 1975, actor Brian Keith played Lew Archer in a TV series called Archer, which due to low ratings only ran for six episodes on NBC (Jan 30-Mar 13). The series is still available on Prime Video.

Goldman’s screenplay for the movie Harper, based on Macdonald’s novel The Moving Target, earned him an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay from Mystery Writers of America (1967).  

In 1956, Margaret Millar won the Edgar Award for Best Novel, Best in View. Two of her later novels were also nominated for Best Novel by MWA. That same year, the Los Angeles Times named her the “Woman of the Year. She served as MWA President in 1957. In 1983, she received MWA’s Grand Master Award, the same year Millar/Macdonald died.

Both Ken and Margaret Millar were avid bird watchers and were founding members of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society.

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