Ross Macdonald: A Biography Summary

Tom Nolan


Though Edgar Allan Poe is credited with having originated the detective story in the 1840’s, the genre was popularized primarily by British authors, and not until the 1920’s and 1930’s did distinctly American crime fiction emerge, with the stories and novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. At mid-century, when Kenneth Millar began publishing novels (and some short stories) in the Hammett-Chandler tradition, the American crime genre started to come of age. He soon developed a hard-boiled style of his own, took on the pseudonym Ross Macdonald, and eschewing his whodunit predecessors, turned to the ancient Greeks, using such Sophoclean and Homeric motifs as the search for one’s father, the past impinging upon the present, and the self-identity quest. He created multilayered plots more complex than those of Chandler and Hammett, and he wrote a richer prose, replete with metaphor. By the time his career ended three decades and twenty-four novels later, he had become the country’s most highly regarded writer of crime fiction and had elevated its status to a place in the literary mainstream and acceptance by the academy. In addition, Millar is a distinguished American regionalist because of his memorable evocation of the Southern California milieu.

Books have been written about Millar’s fiction, and he has been the subject of doctoral dissertations, but Tom Nolan’s Ross Macdonald is the first full-length biography of Millar, who was born in Los Gatos, California, in 1915, raised in Canada, and spent most of his adult life in Southern California. Millar was determinedly secretive about his past and most family matters, particularly regarding his only child, Linda, who had a history of emotional problems, ran afoul of the law when she was in college, and died at thirty-seven. Nolan, a mystery fiction reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, had access to thousands of letters (Millar was a prodigious correspondent), documents, and notebooks in the Kenneth and Margaret Millar collection at the University of California, Irvine, and at other libraries. He also interviewed Margaret Millar as well as dozens of relatives, friends, and literary agents. Because of these conversations and quotations from letters, Millar is a living presence throughout the book, revealed in all his complexities by his own words and the detailed (almost always laudatory) recollections of those who knew him. Nolan’s occasional pauses for discussions of the works, when his chronology calls upon him to do so, are brief and focus mainly on biographical connections, but to have done more would have distracted from his purpose. What he has produced is a definitive life of an American novelist who not only wrote some of the best crime fictions of the century but also significantly influenced the course of a genre he somewhat reluctantly pursued.

Though Kenneth Millar was born in California, his parents were from Canada and soon returned there, living briefly in Vancouver. They separated when Millar was four, and he went with his mother to live in Kitchener, Ontario, but she became destitute and sent him to a cousin in northern Ontario. Then he was sent to live in Alberta, but soon returned to Ontario and attended Waterloo College for a time before transferring to the University of Western Ontario, where his brilliance intimidated some of the faculty. Rejected by Harvard University for graduate studies, he went to the University of Michigan, where he eventually received his Ph.D. in English literature. In 1938, he wed Margaret Sturm, a high school friend, with whom he had a difficult though enduring marriage. She was high-strung, emotional, hypersensitive, and asocial, whereas he was eerily self-possessed, gregarious, and socially active. Both needed their own space, so from the beginning they lived almost separate lives under the same roof, but a strong interdependence developed between them. She became a published author first, though her early success was achieved with his assistance as plotter and editor. He was pleased when her career blossomed, but once he outpaced her in books published and in critical and public recognition, a pronounced rivalry developed.

Even after the Millars finally settled in Santa Barbara, California, and he became involved in community matters, he continued to consider himself an outsider. How his bipolar and peripatetic background shaped his personality and is reflected in his characters and plots is one of Nolan’s theses. “The Split Man,” a potential book title with which Millar toyed but which he never used, is an accurate self-description, according to Nolan. “Millar himself,” he says, “was a man split along national, cultural, intellectual, professional, and even sexual fault lines.”

A turning point in Millar’s life and career was a course he took at Michigan from W. H. Auden, the English poet and a visiting lecturer, for whom Millar wrote a paper on imagery in Dante’s La divina comedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). An avid reader of detective fiction, Auden was impressed with young Millar and encouraged him to become an author. According to Nolan, “The Divine Comedy would be a frame of reference for Ross Macdonald’s southern...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)