Friday, August 30, 2019

The Book You Have to Read: “Meet Me at
the Morgue,” by Ross Macdonald

(Editor’s note: This 160th entry in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books comes from Craig Pittman. A native of Pensacola, Florida, Pittman is an award-winning journalist who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. His non-fiction books include Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species [2010], The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid [2012], and Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country [2016]. In his last piece for The Rap Sheet, Pittman looked back at Elmore Leonard’s acclaimed 1983 novel, LaBrava.)

Between 1949 and 1976, Canadian native Kenneth Millar, under the pen names “John Ross Macdonald” and “Ross Macdonald,” published 20 mystery novels. (He had previously sent to print four standalones under his real name.) Eighteen of those featured private eye Lew Archer, a more empathetic version of the cynical Southern California P.I. originated by Raymond Chandler. Those books brought Millar great acclaim. He was hailed by critics as the true heir of the hard-boiled tradition first made prominent by Dashiell Hammett and then continued by Chandler. A pair of the Archer novels were made into movies starring a gum-chewing Paul Newman as the gumshoe.

But what about those other two novels? They’re the outliers, the ones that didn’t feature Lew Archer or even mention him in passing. The first one of the two is the one I want to tell you about.

It’s called Meet Me at the Morgue and for my money, it’s Millar’s best novel, with a relentless pace and twisty plot that pulls you in and won’t let go.

The main character and narrator is Howard Cross. He’s not a detective. He’s a probation officer. He’s not based in Los Angeles, like Archer. He lives and works in a small Southern California town called Pacific Point.

One of Cross’ probationers is Fred Miner, a World War II veteran who was convicted of a hit-and-run killing that occurred while he was drunk. Miner, despite his past, now walks the straight-and-narrow. He works as a chauffeur for the richest family in town. But when that family’s 4-year-old child disappears at the same time Miner does, the ex-con is suspected of kidnapping him. Cross, however, is skeptical that Miner would do such a thing.

The boy’s young and glamorous mother won’t hear of going to the police, for fear that the news of this abduction might kill her rich and elderly husband, so Cross begins his own investigation. At first he doubts his own fitness to pursue such a case, as well as his methods. But before long he discovers connections to past misdeeds, and the bodies begin to pile up. Cross becomes a driven man, unable to sit still or catch his breath until he’s figured out the whole scheme.

The themes in this book are similar to those Millar explored with Archer: family members who can’t understand each other, secrets from the past that can’t remain buried, the way thwarted dreams can curdle the heart.

Cross, too, has some similarities to Archer. His voice in recounting this story echoes the private eye’s inflections and nuances. But he’s different, too. He’s not the loner that Archer is. He’s not a freelancer, either. He’s a county employee, with a boss and regular hours. He’s part of a system designed to support society, not a guy looking to shake it up. More importantly, he’s a part of the community, not an outsider stepping in to pry open all the locked doors.

When Millar wrote this book in 1952, he had already produced four successful Archer novels: The Moving Target (1949), The Drowning Pool (1959), The Way Some People Die (1951), and The Ivory Grin (1952). But he was ready for a break from Lew Archer, and ready too for readers to know his real name. According to biographer Tom Nolan, this new book was supposed to be published as a Kenneth Millar novel, not a John Ross Macdonald one. He hoped it would be the first in a string of Cross novels bearing his name, alternating with the Lew Archer books. He even saw possibilities of Cross becoming the centerpiece character of a new TV series, according to Nolan.

Millar spent time at a probation office to research the novel, and also talked to a renowned forensic chemist regarding a crucial clue he hoped to use. But he ended up writing the book under difficult circumstances, recalls Nolan. He suffered from a painful attack of gout that landed him in a rented wheelchair. For months on end, he required constant care from his wife, Margaret Millar, herself a successful mystery novelist.

Somehow, despite the swelling in his hands and feet, he managed to crank out this book and send it off to his publisher, Alfred Knopf.

“I like it immensely,” Knopf wrote him. “I think it is one of your best books.”

Not everyone agreed. Millar’s paperback publisher was Pocket Books, and Pocket was not particularly happy with this new tale: “Reading the manuscript left me once again puzzled about the author and his works. … [A]ll the books lack the kind of punch which should go with the sort of story he writes. Maybe the author is just too nice a person, but his bad characters somehow or other aren’t believably bad.” The note went on to suggest that Millar try to be more like Chandler, and “sharpen both the characters and the action.”

Millar shot back a hot rejoinder, according to Nolan. The characters in this book, he wrote, “are more human than in anything I’ve done, closer to life.” He felt “more than pleased” with the plot he had concocted. As for Chandler, “I am interested in doing things in the mystery which Chandler didn’t do, and probably couldn’t. … My interest is the exploration of lives. If my stories lack a powerful contrast between good and evil, as Pocket Books points out, it isn’t mere inadvertence.” This book, he explained, “though it is an offspring or variant of the hardboiled form, is a stage in my emergence from that form and a conscious step towards the popular novel I envisage.”

Knopf loved Millar’s feisty response, replying: “I am all for the writer who goes his own way.” However, he insisted the new novel needed a new title. The one Millar had proposed was Message from Hell, which Knopf said just would not do. Nolan says Millar offered Meet Me at the Morgue as a half-hearted compromise, and Knopf ran with it. There would be one more change: Because Knopf had put in so much effort promoting Millar’s previous books under the pseudonym of “John Ross Macdonald,” he said this book should carry that name as well. Millar agreed, but for the author’s photo he submitted an X-ray.

When Meet Me at the Morgue finally came out in 1953, it was greeted with good reviews, Nolan reports. One critic said it was up to the author’s usual high standards “and will give a couple of hours of pure enjoyment to any detective-story fancier.” It was picked up for reprint not just by Pocket Books, but also by the Mystery Guild book club. Cosmopolitan magazine even paid $5,000 to run a condensed version.

But it didn’t sell well in hardcover (Knopf explained in a letter that hardcover fiction in general was selling poorly right then). Meanwhile, the Cosmo reprint brought a surprise eruption from a Florida mystery author, John D. MacDonald, who objected to Millar continuing to use a version of his name as his pseudonym (ultimately Millar would drop the “John” and just go with “Ross Macdonald”).

The next book Millar wrote, published a year after Meet Me at the Morgue, was another Archer adventure, Find a Victim. Then came The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Doomsters (1958), and The Galton Case (1959)—all featuring Lew Archer. Howard Cross disappeared like a fist when you open your hand. He was never heard from again.

Millar wrote one more mystery centered around an investigator who wasn’t named Archer. It was The Ferguson Affair, released in 1960, and the main character is a happily married lawyer. He’s representing a young woman he thinks may be innocent of the crime she’s been accused of, and at the center of the story is a rich older man and his much younger wife. Sound familiar?

Nolan doesn’t speculate on why Millar never wrote another Cross book. Something soured Millar on the character he had once wanted to see on weekly television. Two decades after Meet Me at the Morgue was published, in a letter to his friend and admirer Eudora Welty, Millar wrote: “Nearly twenty years ago, in 1952, I was so badly crippled by gout that I was housebound in a wheelchair for months; wrote a whole book, a not very good book … with a not very good title, when all I could move was my fingers.”

Reading the book today, you’d never know that its author could barely move while he was writing it. Meet Me at the Morgue itself moves plenty. It rockets along like it was shot from a pistol—one that’s aimed straight at your heart.

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