Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On the Case with Tom Nolan

What does it say about 20th-century crime novelist Ross Macdonald that he finally--as of this week--has a Library of America volume dedicated to his early work? “That he’s taking his rightful place amongst the acknowledged masters of American literature,” says Tom Nolan, the Los Angeles writer and Wall Street Journal books critic who gave us Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999), certainly the best-yet study of this author’s life and literary endeavors. As Nolan told me during a recent interview--the first part of which was posted today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site--his new Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s comprises some of the most “beautifully written” books Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar) produced during the post-World War II era: The Way Some People Die (1951), The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Doomsters (1958), and The Galton Case (1959). It also features several “other writings” that illuminate the author’s work on those novels, recount his discovery of detective fiction, and tell of his deliberate efforts to enlarge the genre’s scope.

Even for somebody as familiar with Macdonald’s work as I am (the first crime novel I remember consuming was 1949’s The Moving Target, which introduced his series protagonist, L.A. private eye Lew Archer, and I’ve since enjoyed reading and re-reading the entirety of Macdonald’s oeuvre), holding the brand-new, 900-plus-page Library of America collection in my hands is a treat. Macdonald wasn’t only a terrific crime novelist; he was a terrific novelist who used fictional illegalities as his entry into telling stories--sometimes braided with Freudian issues and Greek tragedy--about families in trouble. As author-playwright Gordon Dahlquist opined in HiLobrow:
Simply in terms of the hard-boiled mystery, the books are audaciously accomplished. Macdonald’s intricate plots are like Sophocles by way of a boa constrictor. His subtle reconfiguration of the detective character tips the Archer books toward social portrait and social critique without the burden of any particular axe being ground. Archer isn’t an avatar of tough virtue for the reader’s vicarious thrill. He may be a catalyst within the stories, but most profoundly and more simply he’s a witness. If [Raymond] Chandler’s novels are about [gumshoe Philip] Marlowe, then Macdonald’s--despite Archer’s fuller realization--are about California. But most remarkable is the compassion with which these unsparing tales are unwound. The compassion is never soft, but feels truthful without being cruel.
Macdonald made Archer a sharp observer of the social condition, a questioner who unpeeled layers of familial strife, jealousy, and disappointment even as he sought answers to whatever obvious mystery lay at the heart of his current yarn. The author, having endured ample woes himself (both as a youngster and as the father of a “wild” daughter, Linda, who killed a 13-year-old boy in a car wreck and later disappeared from college for more than a week) and undergone psychoanalysis as a result, could--through Archer--empathize with his hardship-plagued characters. Not all imaginary shamuses on the clock during the first three quarters of the 20th century demonstrated such understanding. National Public Radio’s Maureen Corrigan, recalling the opening of The Doomsters--in which “a troubled young man bangs at Lew Archer’s door in the wee hours of the morning”--suggests that “Sam Spade would have rolled over in bed and ignored the knock; Philip Marlowe would have been out walking the L.A. streets in the rain; later on, Mickey Spillane would have just shot that annoying predawn visitor. But Lew Archer is as much a social worker, a counselor, a father confessor as he is a private eye. Macdonald gave us a detective with psychological depth; a gumshoe capable of throwing around words like ‘gestalt.’”

That capacity for compassion, Archer’s willingness to excavate the tumbledown remains of a family’s history (and in so many of Macdonald’s later novels, the roots of contemporary misfortunes are traceable to injustices and failures in the past) was one thing that drew me, as it did so many other readers, to Lew Archer’s adventures. After managing--through some miracle that could only have been available to an individual as young and callow as I was at the time--to arrange an interview with Millar/Macdonald in 1980, what I wanted to do most as I sat with him in the dimly lit study of his Santa Barbara, California, home was ask him for a deep analysis of his sleuth-cum-shrink, and inquire where Archer’s path might lead him in the future. Unfortunately, by that point Macdonald was already enduring the effects of the Alzheimer’s disease that would kill him (in July 1983), and he couldn’t always remember the nuances of his fiction.

(Left) Editor Tom Nolan, photographed by Hal Boucher

Much later, in 1999, when I first had the opportunity to interview Tom Nolan, about his Macdonald biography, I asked him how much his subject’s troubled past had influenced his choice of a career writing about troubled people. “Oh, enormously,” said Nolan. “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.”

More than a decade and a half has passed since then. But when I learned that the Library of America planned to issue a selection of Ross Macdonald’s early Archer cases--to help celebrate this year’s centennial of the author’s birth (he came into the world in Los Gatos, California, on December 13, 1915)--and that Nolan had served as its editor, I knew I had to interview him again. I also wanted to ask Nolan, though, about his work on a second volume, Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, which Arcade Publishing will debut in July. Co-edited with Eudora Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs, it draws on an abundance of letters--more than 300 of them!--exchanged during the 1970s and early ’80s between Macdonald and Mississippi Pulitzer Prize winner Welty (The Optimist’s Daughter). “Though separated by background, geography, genre, and his marriage,” explains the back-jacket copy on my bound galley of this book, “the two authors shared their lives in witty, tender, and profoundly romantic letters, each drawing on the other for inspiration, comfort, and strength.”

And Nolan’s centennial-year offerings don’t stop there. He’s also awaiting this summer’s paperback release of an expanded version of The Archer Files, his 2007 collection of Macdonald’s previously unpublished Archer short stories and story fragments.

I took the opportunity recently to quiz Nolan, via e-mail, about his various Macdonald projects. A significant chunk of our exchange can be found in my new Kirkus column. But I also asked him more about his personal history with Macdonald’s fiction, his continuing research into that author’s career, Macdonald’s often uneasy association with Chandler, and the “forgotten” suspense fiction penned by Macdonald’s wife. What didn’t fit in Kirkus is posted below.

J. Kingston Pierce: I understand you started reading crime and mystery fiction when you were a boy, just 8 or 9 years old. What provoked such an early interest in the genre?

Tom Nolan: I was 9 when a school chum told me about the Sherlock Holmes stories, which his father had bought him in the complete edition with introduction by Christopher Morley; my friend said this book was terrific. My dad was kind enough to buy me the same anthology, from the Pickwick Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard. I loved the Holmes canon, too. At the Hollywood library on Ivar [Avenue], I looked for more detective stories. There were lots. 100 Years’ Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, 1841-1941, the Modern Library Giant collection edited by Ellery Queen, proved a useful historical guide. Soon I was compiling and memorizing lists of fictional detectives and their creators (as, I suppose, some kids memorized batting averages): Remember Martin Hewitt, Investigator? Max Carrados, the Blind Detective? The Great Merlini? Then Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, Perry Mason, and on and on.

(Right) Pickwick Books in Los Angeles, circa 1965

Also, in the late 1950s, daytime TV was full of old movies, many of them mystery and crime stories adapted from books by prose-writers ranging from Conan Doyle to Cornell Woolrich. The greatest detective movies, I discovered, were taken from novels: The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. I read those books, too--and they were as good or better than the movies.

There were many detective and police series on prime-time television: Dragnet, Border Patrol, Racket Squad, Perry Mason. They claimed a degree of authenticity.

Newspapers were full of crime news. L.A. had five newspapers then, with morning, afternoon, and evening editions. All were sensationalistic, with lots of black-headlined crime stories--some set in one’s own neighborhood.

The fiction I read began to merge in my imagination with life around me. “Colorful” mobster Mickey Cohen was a local “celebrity” and acted the part, hanging out with stars on the Sunset Strip, always good for a quote. His henchman Johnny Stompanato was stabbed to death in movie star Lana Turner’s house; her courtroom testimony was carried live on L.A.’s Channel 5.

There seemed a synthesis between life and art, fact and fiction, in the town I grew up in. I was 10 when I first went to lunch at Musso-Franks restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. (I ordered filet mignon, bread and butter, and a glass of milk.) Musso’s, “the oldest restaurant in Hollywood,” turned up in detective (and other) books I read, including Raymond Chandler’s and Ross Macdonald’s. Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s private eye, had an office on Ivar (or sometimes Cahuenga) and used the same library I did. Chandler and William Faulkner (whose mystery short-stories were collected in Knight’s Gambit) had been patrons at Pickwick’s, the bookstore I spent whole Saturdays in.

After a while, I began to feel I was halfway living in an L.A. novel.

JKP: You’ve told me before that the first Macdonald novel you read, when you were 11, was The Barbarous Coast (1956), his sixth Lew Archer tale, and that you experienced an “eerie personal moment” in the course of enjoying that book. Can you explain further?

TN: In Chapter 7 of the book, Archer seeks information from Anton, a French-Canadian dance teacher in a stucco building in West Hollywood.

I was French-Canadian by birth and as a younger youngster had taken tap lessons in a stucco-fronted studio in West Hollywood.

Archer asks Anton why he didn’t give more assistance to Archer’s client, a Canadian husband come to Southern California in search of his missing wife (an ex-pupil of Anton’s); the instructor answers: “ … my father was a streetcar conductor in Montreal. Why should I help an Anglo from Toronto?”

My father, before our family moved in ’53 to Southern California, drove a streetcar in Montreal.

I stopped, stunned. If I’d known [Jorge Luis] Borges’ work then, I might have felt like a Borges figure: a fellow reading a story and realizing he himself is one of its characters. At the very least, I decided, this Ross Macdonald had somehow done his homework.

JKP: Were you a consistent reader of Macdonald’s work ever after, or were there other novelists in this genre to whom you gravitated more strongly?

TN: There were and are other writers I have and do admire greatly: Chandler, Hammett, [George] Pelecanos, [Michael] Connelly, [Denise] Mina, [Tana] French. But I always returned, and still do, to Macdonald: no one else affects me so deeply and on so many artistic and emotional levels.

JKP: What’s been Macdonald’s lasting impact on detective fiction?

TN: “Incalculable” is the word that springs to my tongue. All the household-name mystery writers since the 1970s in a sense owe their careers to his crossover onto mainstream-fiction bestseller lists; he paved the way for Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, and dozens of others. And he set an artistic standard that many authors still aspire to.

James Ellroy dedicated a book to his memory.

Ross Macdonald was one of the favorite authors of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose Martin Beck police novels revolutionized--you could almost say invented--Swedish crime fiction, leading directly to the work of Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and dozens of contemporary Scandinavian writers, all of whom share Macdonald’s Ibsenesque vision of a world where everyone is in some sense culpable; there’s always enough guilt to go around.

Macdonald personally mentored by mail a Canadian teenager named Linwood Barclay, who’s now an internationally successful thriller writer.

Recently Donna Leon, who lives in Venice and writes a best-selling series about an Italian police detective, said her favorite mystery writer is Ross Macdonald: “Macdonald’s prose is wonderful, his sentences are sometimes serpentine, sometimes as balanced as anything Alexander Pope wrote.”

Ross Macdonald’s works were translated into many languages, including Japanese and Russian. His influence was global, and it continues--along with his own works--into the 21st century.

JKP: Since the publication of your Ross Macdonald biography, you’ve obviously been busy as The Wall Street Journal’s crime-fiction reviewer, plus you penned a biography of clarinetist/band leader Artie Shaw [Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake] that was released in 2010. But you keep circling back again to Macdonald, compiling three previously unpublished mysteries in Strangers in Town (2001), collecting the author’s short fiction in The Archer Files (2007), and this year producing two new books about Lew Archer’s creator. Are you surprised to still be researching Macdonald’s life after all this time?

TN: I think it’s accurate to say that every post-biography Macdonald work I’ve been associated with has been something I’ve wanted (and been trying) to do since 1999. But it takes a long time, for a number of reasons, to bring a book from conception to publication. Yet the results always seem (to me) worth whatever the wait. I am grateful to be able to help bring more Macdonald material to readers.

JKP: Are you constantly following clues to material you’ve heard might exist, or is much of the Ross Macdonald stuff you find nowadays brought to you by other literary researchers who think you might be interested in new finds?

TN: To tell you the truth, Jeff, I expect other researchers would most likely keep such finds to themselves! But new acquisitions come into Macdonald’s archive [at the University of California-Irvine] from time to time, and that reminds me: I must go over there soon and see what’s up.

JKP: What other archives of his work have you plumbed over the last 16 years?

TN: Macdonald’s considerable correspondence with [publisher] Alfred A. Knopf and his staff is in the Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. His decades of letters to the Harold Ober Agency are in the Ober Archives at Princeton University. There are letters from Macdonald to the critic and author Anthony Boucher at the Lilly Library of Indiana University. And Macdonald’s letters to Eudora Welty (and hers to him) are housed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

JKP: When I first interviewed you, in 1999, I asked about the existence of a last, unpublished Lew Archer novel that Macdonald had contracted to write for Knopf in 1979, before he was overcome by Alzheimer’s. You said you’d found fragments of work that you thought he might have eventually combined, including some that he could have employed to link Archer’s early life with his own, revealing that Archer had originally come from Canada. Have you located any further clues as to what Macdonald’s final Archer novel might have offered?

TN: As he wrote Eudora Welty, he was drawn back to memories of two early teenage years spent in Winnipeg, with an aunt and uncle who left lifelong impressions on him. He wrote some pages and made notes for a work set in that city circa 1929. He also told Welty he was intrigued by the notion of a book that would mix fact and fiction, memory and invention, in interlacing and overlapping fashion: a writer exploring his own past through made-up stories derived from it.

JKP: Macdonald saw seven of his Lew Archer novels published during the 1950s, four of which you feature in this new Library of America (LOA) Macdonald omnibus. Of those, is there one you think represents the best of the author’s literary talents?

TN: Each is great in its way. But The Galton Case is the first novel of his mature period, I feel; the first to deploy fully his characteristic themes and wonderful poetic style. He saw this novel at the time as a fulcrum upon which his future work could turn.

JKP: Macdonald penned 18 Archer novels. Do you have other favorites that didn’t fit within the period constraints of this new volume?

TN: Lots. The Chill, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, Sleeping Beauty, The Underground Man, The Far Side of the Dollar--to name but five.

JKP: And this LOA collection represents only one of four decades during which Macdonald was producing fiction. Can we expect follow-up collections from you, or haven’t you brought that up with the LOA folks yet?

TN: I think it’s safe to say there’ll likely be at least one more Macdonald LOA volume, drawing from the final 10 years or so of his work. In fact, I now have permission to say there’ll be two more volumes!

JKP: In addition to the four novels, your LOA collection offers five “other writings” by Macdonald. Among those is a wonderful letter he penned to publisher Knopf that explains how his work differs from that of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and other contemporaries. How did you choose the short works featured here?

TN: His 1952 letter to Alfred Knopf was written in response to Pocket Books’ complaint that Macdonald’s upcoming standalone, Meet Me at the Morgue, didn’t reflect the black-and-white, good-versus-evil world the paperback house expected then from such a book; they suggested Knopf have someone rewrite Macdonald’s novel to bring it more into the expected formulaic line. In Macdonald’s impassioned response, he defends his right to his own aesthetic integrity and moral vision. I’m sure he felt he was fighting for his artistic life.

The 1965 essay “The Writer As Detective Hero,” written for Show magazine, was published three years after Raymond Chandler’s 1949 letter to critic James Sandoe saw print; this was the letter in which Chandler found sneering fault with Macdonald’s first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, a book Sandoe had liked and made the mistake of praising to Chandler. Macdonald felt the need to defend himself against Chandler’s now-public attack. In this essay, he contrasts his morally complex and stylistically nuanced approach to crime fiction with the arguably more simplistic view of Chandler and his imitators.

“Preface to Archer in Hollywood” (a 1967 Knopf three-decker omnibus) is included in part for its references to The Way Some People Die and The Barbarous Coast.

“Writing The Galton Case” is an informative piece about another of the books in the Library’s Macdonald quartet.

And “Down These Streets a Mean Man Must Go” is the rewritten-for-publication version of a 1973 talk Macdonald gave in Chicago to a gathering of the Popular Culture Association. It contains moving autobiographical revelations concerning Macdonald’s adolescent discovery, in Kitchener, Ontario, of Dashiell Hammett’s fiction, which started him on the long, detour-filled path to becoming a detective novelist himself.

JKP: I was sorry to see how seriously Macdonald had fallen out with Chandler, whose work once inspired his own. In that letter to Knopf, he contends Chandler just doesn’t have it in him to advance the detective story farther than he has by that point--a year before Chandler published The Long Goodbye.

TN: Although the exuberant prose and compelling L.A. panorama of Raymond Chandler’s first two books exhilarated Macdonald in the early 1940s and liberated his own nascent creativity, he became disenchanted (as did his wife, Margaret Millar) by the limitations of Chandler’s approach.

Chandler wrote great individual scenes but often paid scant attention to plot. Macdonald saw plot “as a vehicle of meaning. … The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure.”

Chandler’s conception of his narrator-protagonist was antithetical to Macdonald, who stated, “I could never write of Archer [as Chandler had of Philip Marlowe]: ‘He is the hero, he is everything.’ It is true that [Archer’s] actions carry the story … But he is not [its] emotional center.”

On a personal level, Macdonald was upset by things Chandler had done circa 1949 and ’50 that he interpreted as Chandler trying to spoil Macdonald’s chances in the marketplace: mocking The Moving Target to James Sandoe, knocking The Drowning Pool to colleague James Fox (head of the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America), putting down Macdonald in comments to an influential Midwestern bookseller. Macdonald felt Chandler had tried to smother his career in its cradle, so to speak; and while he later took pains to give Chandler his artistic due in print, Macdonald in private could never condone what he felt had been Chandler’s personal maliciousness towards him.

JKP: Let’s talk briefly about your second major Macdonald book coming out this year, Meanwhile There Are Letters. By what mechanics did you and your co-editor, Suzanne Marrs, put this book together?

TN: By telephone, e-mail, and the U.S. Postal Service. I transcribed Ken’s half of the correspondence, from photocopies of his handwritten originals. Suzanne transcribed Miss Welty’s half. We collaborated with ease and pleasure on the introduction and the narrative text woven around the letters.

JKP: What new information can we glean about Macdonald and Welty by reading through this correspondence they once thought private?

TN: What you’ll see is a relationship developing from professional admiration and collegial respect through intense personal friendship into love. As Alfred Uhry, the author of Driving Miss Daisy (and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the Oscar) says, if I may quote: “These exquisite letters chart the growth of a deep and abiding friendship. And, astoundingly, they become a love story that will break your heart.”

JKP: What were the most valuable or satisfying things these authors derived from their epistolary relationship?

TN: Someone to whom they could express personal thoughts and feelings in ways impossible or uncomfortable or inappropriate with other correspondents. Someone with profound interest in their feelings and perceptions, who took joy in their existence. Someone who cherished them.

JKP: In addition to 2015 marking a century since Kenneth Millar was born, it’s also the 100th anniversary of Margaret Millar’s birth in Ontario, Canada. You compiled a collection of her mystery short stories (The Couple Next Door, 2005) and wrote an intro to Stark House Press’ 2006 pairing of two of her classic novels, An Air That Kills and Do Evil in Return. So let me ask: Although her stories of psychological suspense have won critical acclaim, she has been all but forgotten by most readers. Why has Ross Macdonald’s work remained in print, while hers has not?

TN: For the same reasons they stayed only sporadically in print during her lifetime.

Except for her first and last few books, she did not write series characters, whose adventures tend to attract a larger and more faithful readership (and a more regular publishing schedule). Once it was clear that Margaret Millar’s forte was the unique standalone thriller, her husband resigned himself to continuing his Lew Archer novels, which served him better in the long run. “Maggie” (as she liked to be called) suffered severe writer’s block in the 1970s and prematurely “retired” for six years, which interrupted her career momentum to say the least.

But the posthumous neglect of this excellent author will soon end. Soho Crime’s Syndicate Books has announced its imminent reissue, in uniform print and e-book editions, of all the books of Margaret Millar (including her non-fiction work, The Birds and the Beasts Were There).

JKP: I understand that in July publisher Vintage/Black Lizard will be bringing out an expanded version of your 2007 collection of Macdonald’s short fiction, The Archer Files. What additional material can we expect to find in this new edition?

TN: The added material in this expanded edition of The Archer Files includes a couple of chapters from the fragmentary Winnipeg-based manuscript referred to above, a discarded last chapter from the 1965 novel The Far Side of the Dollar [“We Went on from There”], and two more beginnings of unfinished stories similar to the 11 “case notes” in the original Archer Files. These items--some of which have appeared before, in different limited-edition contexts--are held in Macdonald’s archive at UC Irvine, which is where I came upon them.

JKP: With all of the books you have out now about Macdonald, are there still pieces of his work that you’re holding back, waiting to use at some date in the not-too-distant future? In other words, will there be more Macdonald books rolling out of your computer?

TN: As gratifying as it is for me to be thought a sort of custodian of my favorite writer’s oeuvre, let me hasten to say I am not his literary gatekeeper. Ross Macdonald’s trustee and his agent make the decisions regarding what parts of his work are to be published or republished. Other writers and editors may be at work on their own Ross Macdonald projects.

As for me: In the past 16 years, I’ve written a number of occasional pieces about Macdonald’s fiction--all drawing on material not in my Macdonald biography--which I’d love to see collected in a book.

LISTEN UP: In the 49th episode of their podcast, Speaking of Mysteries, Nancie Clare and Leslie S. Klinger speak with Tom Nolan about his new Library of America Macdonald collection. Click here to enjoy their conversation.

READ MORE:Can’t Wait for True Detective 2? Dive Into Ross Macdonald’s California Noir Masterpieces,” by Scott TImberg (Salon).


david hartzog said...

Best news I've heard in years, my favorite author since I read The Instant Enemy when it first came out. Its about time, I wrote LOA last year after the Leonard book came out, about a MacDonald volume. Have all the novels, short stories, his book on writing The Galton Case, but ordered LOA edition after reading this post.

TracyK said...

This is an incredible article, and I haven't even finished reading it all, or gotten to the Kirkus article. I am interested in the book about the correspondence with Eudora Welty, so thanks for that info too.

Joe DAgnese said...

This is one of these articles that has me clicking through, adding titles to my Wish List. Wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I believe you mean/meant to write "effect" of Alzheimer's, not Affect.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Whoops! Thank you, "Anonymous," for catching that typo. It has now been fixed.

Paul Hughes said...

In the centenary year of Mr. Macdonald's birth I begin reading the books. Well. I have some work to do. In the meantime I'll meet Mr. Nolan at UCI — a mile from where I work a as a journalist — any time he needs to "go over there soon and see what's up."

Twista said...

Incredible article and good written input!