Saturday, December 13, 2008

“Distinction Is Everything”

I’ve written about novelist Ross Macdonald many times in The Rap Sheet, so I was going to blow off the fact that today would have been his 93rd birthday (had he not perished as a result of Alzheimer’s disease in 1983). Ninety-three isn’t a nice round number to commemorate, not like 90; and hey, I just remarked on Macdonald’s birthday two years ago.

But then came two reminders of Macdonald’s life and career, and I decided that that was one too many for me to ignore. First, this morning’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac noted that the author was
born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). His father abandoned the family, and his mother struggled to support him, occasionally begging for money on the street. He read a lot growing up, even climbing the fire escape of the town library at night so that he could read the authors who were off limits to young people during the day.

One summer, he won a typewriter in a radio quiz show. He started publishing stories and humor pieces, and wrote some moderately successful spy and crime novels. And then he invented a private investigator named Lew Archer. He wrote a book about his new character, a book called The Moving Target (1949), and he went on to write 18 Lew Archer novels. Most of these novels are about characters trying to uncover some mystery at the heart of their families, often having to do with lost fathers. Millar became known as one of the authors who helped elevate the mystery novel to the level of serious literature.
The second reminder came via Bill Crider. It seems there’s a former newspaper book review editor in Wisconsin by the name of Roger K. Miller, and he has a rather well-done blog called The View from Graustark. He chose today to write about Macdonald/Millar, drawing largely from his reading of Tom Nolan’s 1999 book, Ross Macdonald: A Biography. To quote from Miller’s post:
But, as the Wise Old Newspaper Filosofer once said, one thought per column, and the thought I’d impress upon you in this column is: what a thoroughly decent, considerate, kind, ethical, and humble man Millar was. Not simply because those can be rare qualities in the arts, but because they form a strain running all through Nolan’s book.

Millar gave aid and comfort to fellow writers and to aspiring writers. He would write long, thoughtful replies to fans who sent him enthusiastic letters. He helped those in trouble; the singer-songwriter Warren Zevon credits Millar with saving his life. Millar was even nice toward those who treated him shabbily, like his forerunner and eventual rival for literary reputation, Raymond Chandler, who apparently thought--correctly--that someone was gaining on him.

Nor was he, as so often happens, a hero to the world and a monster to his family. His wife, Margaret Millar, equally renowned as a mystery writer, apparently could be a bit of a dragon, but they loved and supported each other though more than four decades of marriage. Both agonized over the emotional troubles of their only child, Linda, who died at 31.

Still, one thought per column aside, they don’t write biographies of people for being nice; they write them because they achieved something. It is futile in this short oblong of space to try and explain Millar’s achievement as a writer. Nolan and his interviewees explain it superbly. A Bantam publicist caught it succinctly. With Lew Archer, the publicist said, Ross Macdonald began the trend away from writing mystery novels to writing “novels that dealt with mysteries.” The distinction is everything, and Macdonald did it with distinction.
Miller’s is a blog post full of warmth and compassion. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

3 comments:

dick adler said...

One of the best days of my life was when I took the bus up to Santa Barbara to interview Ken Millar for WEST Magazine, the old L.A. Times Sunday mag. A lot of it is in Tom Nolan's absolutely top notch biog, a labor of love like his continuing efforts to dig up old stories. Add to that list Jeff Pierce and THE RAP SHEET, and the above mentioned Mr. Miller.

Roddy McCorley said...

Was just a few weeks ago that here in Lew Archer's stomping grounds we had a rain of ash, smoke and soot. As I felt the Santa Anas drive the grit from the Sylmar fire against my skin, I couldn't help thinking about The Underground Man. It was a reminder that while the Southern California of Raymond Chandler has largely vanished, that of Ross MacDonald is still around.

(I wonder if we'll say that of, oh, Michael Connelly or Robert Crais in 30 or 40 years.)

seanag said...

That's a very nice tribute to Ross MacDonald, who I've admired for a long time. It's always nice to know that an author you like to read is also a lovely person as well.

The new bit of trivia I got on him from this posting, though, was that he was born in Los Gatos, which is just up the road from my stomping grounds in Santa Cruz. I would have pegged him for a transplanted Midwesterner for sure. I mean, who of that generation wasn't?