Sunday, December 13, 2015

At 100, Ross Is Still Boss

It seems so odd now, but back when I first became a follower of Ross Macdonald’s private-eye fiction, in the 1970s, my impression was that most people had never heard of Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar). I remember, in the mid-’80s, giving a copy of The Blue Hammer (1976)--the last of his 18 books starring Los Angeles sleuth Lew Archer--to a friend of mine, a highly literate young woman (though not usually a crime-fiction reader), and having to explain how Macdonald was the third-most-important developer of American detective fiction in the 20th century, along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. She looked at me as if I’d just enthused about Ceres’ significance in our solar system’s asteroid belt. I might as well have been speaking Urdu. And when, after writing to the author through his publisher, I received an invitation to meet and interview Macdonald at his residence in Santa Barbara, California, I had to do a hard-sell on my newspaper editor of the time, trying to convince him Macdonald was an important wordsmith who deserved our attention. I ultimately had to pay my own way down to Southern California, but it was worth the trouble.

Well, what a difference a few decades can make. Had Macdonald not died from Alzheimer’s disease in 1983, he would today be celebrating his 100th birthday. Over the last few years, and especially in the lead-up to this centennial, there’s been a good deal of writing in praise of his contributions to crime fiction and to literature, in general. The man that novelist-screenwriter William Goldman once declared, in the pages of The New York Times, had penned “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American” is a mystery no longer.

In an excellent recent piece for the Santa Barbara Independent, Bruce Riordan explains that Macdonald is
poised to enter into his greatest period of renown since the 1970s, when his books were international best-sellers and he was on the cover of Newsweek magazine. This longtime Santa Barbara resident, known to his friends and family by his birth name, Kenneth Millar, is the subject of an unprecedented posthumous revival that looks set to position him as the most significant figure in the highly influential genre of hard-boiled detective fiction. The decidedly highbrow and prestigious Library of America is leading the way, having recently published the first of a projected three hardcover volumes anthologizing Macdonald’s Lew Archer books, thus setting his work alongside not only the usual suspects, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but also on the shelf with such literary heavyweights as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Philip Roth, and John Cheever. Also this fall, Arcade Publishing has released the previously unpublished decade-long romantic correspondence between Macdonald and the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Eudora Welty under the title Meanwhile There Are Letters. The Archer Files, a collection of Macdonald’s Lew Archer short stories, is also back in print, with new material collected by Macdonald’s biographer, Tom Nolan.

Although the Ross Macdonald centennial bonanza will stretch into 2016 with the publication of the next two Library of America volumes and
It’s All One Case by Kevin Avery, a collection of previously unpublished transcripts of interviews between Macdonald and Rolling Stone rock music writer Paul Nelson, the most exciting development for many fans may be cinematic. Variety reports that Joel and Ethan Coen have signed on with Hollywood mega-producer Joel Silver to adapt Macdonald’s 1966 novel Black Money for the big screen. Black Money, which is set in a town remarkably similar to Montecito, is Macdonald’s take on The Great Gatsby, and the combination of the Coens’ wry sensibility and Macdonald’s hard-boiled yet literate prose could well prove irresistible.

With all this activity, it’s increasingly clear that 2015 is not only the centennial of Macdonald’s birth but also the year of the rebirth of Macdonald as a serious figure in American literature…

Writers in America’s 1975 interview with Ross Macdonald

Not that the value of Macdonald’s Archer yarns has ever really been in doubt. As John Geraci wrote in Criminal Element:
If James M. Cain was detective fiction’s 30-minute hard-boiled egg, Hammett its errant knight, and Chandler … its Southern California stylist, then it is Macdonald who elevated the genre.

Yeah, he writes stories about detection and crime and foul deeds, but what he really writes about are families--about the sins of the fathers, and mothers, and every family member, including yourself--that screw things up royally. And so when Lew Archer is summoned, he picks and pulls at the errant thread and eventually unravels the tapestry of deceit--from discovering whether it was the wastrel son or the sexpot daughter who pushed millionaire papa into the deep end (
The Drowning Pool) … to finding a runaway bride (The Chill) … to locating the wayward son (The Galton Case) … to tracking a missing child who might be the sacrificial pawn in a game of marital chess (The Underground Man).

Macdonald’s style was, in truth, the sleek package for delivering a trainload of Freudian issues, Greek tragedy, and vivid imagery: “I could see the enormous slick spreading like premature night across the sea” (
Sleeping Beauty); “Number seventeen needed paint, and leaned on its pilings like a man on crutches” (The Chill); “… Truttwell himself looked rather artificial, like a carefully made wax image wired for sound” (The Goodbye Look).

The late Nora Ephron said her parents always admonished her that life “was copy.” In other words, everything’s up for grabs and you must use your own life, your own experiences for material.

Macdonald did exactly that. And while his books aren’t autobiographical, the themes, the people who came to life on his pages with their own petty plans, their hurts (real or imagined), and their desperate actions at trying to uncover the truth or bury the past, had their genesis in his own life.
His was a life full of complicated material worth mining. In the intro to an interview I conducted in 1999 with Tom Nolan, author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography, I noted how that study recounts
some of the more tragic and certainly less-reported elements of the author’s existence. He recalls how Millar grew up poor and virtually fatherless in Ontario, Canada; how, as a boy, he was introduced to homosexuality and expressed his anger at the world through fighting and theft (“I’m amazed at some of the chances I took as a boy,” Millar once admitted); how he stayed for over four decades in a frequently unpleasant marriage to fellow mystery novelist Margaret Millar; and how, after at least one attempted suicide and his initial refusal to seek professional help, he eventually agreed to psychiatric treatment (a “watershed event,” as Millar once described it). What finally drove him to the analyst’s couch were difficulties with his daughter, Linda, who in 1956 was involved in a vehicular homicide and three years later--on parole and under psychiatric care--disappeared from her college dorm, setting off a widely publicized police hunt that led Millar to appeal through the media for his daughter to return home. (Linda Millar was finally located in Nevada, and subsequently told a harrowing tale about her days on the run.)
That exchange I had with Nolan, by the way, was published as part of a much more extensive feature package in January Magazine, which also included tributes to Ross Macdonald by Kevin Burton Smith, Gary Phillips, Karl-Erik Lindkvist, and a host of contemporary novelists (Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, S.J. Rozan, Max Allan Collins, etc.). Since then, I’ve made a point of keeping up with Macdonald-related news, reporting it not only in The Rap Sheet but also in Kirkus Reviews and elsewhere. Rather than take this occasion of the author’s 100th birthday as an opportunity to repeat everything that’s come before, let me simply point you toward some of those pieces:

“The Name Is Macdonald: Fresh Acclaim for a P.I. Fiction Master” -- Part I of my most recent interview with Tom Nolan, covering his work on the anthology Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s and the book he co-authored with Suzanne Marrs, Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.

“On the Case with Tom Nolan” -- The much larger and more wide-ranging Part II of that same conversation.

“The Rap Sheet: First Contact” -- In which I recall my high-school introduction to Macdonald’s first Archer novel, The Moving Target.

“Graves Goes to His Grave” -- A 2010 obituary of actor Peter Graves that deals extensively with his role as Lew Archer in the TV pilot film The Underground Man, based on Macdonald’s 1971 novel of the same name.

“A Saint with a Gun” -- My comments on the original, 2007 edition of The Archer Files, edited by Tom Nolan.

“‘Heyday in the Blood’: A Never-Before-Published Lew Archer Tale” -- A short excerpt from The Archer Files.

“A Master’s Last Bow” -- In which Nolan recalls the research he did in order to compile the pieces that make up The Archer Files.

“Out of the Past” -- A review of Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald (2001), edited by Tom Nolan.

There’s been considerable debate over the years as to which books among the Lew Archer series are the best. When The Rap Sheet conducted a survey along these lines in 2011, the top three vote-getters were The Chill (1964), The Underground Man, and The Galton Case (1959). But other readers stand behind Black Money, The Instant Enemy (1968), Sleeping Beauty (1973), The Goodbye Look (1969), The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), and The Way Some People Die (1951). Really, there are no bad choices in the bunch. If, for some strange reason, you’ve never read an Archer tale before, though, I would start precisely where I did so many years ago, with his first, The Moving Target (1949). And I’d do it now.

READ MORE:A Not-So-Golden State: The Detective Stories of Ross Macdonald,” by Andrew J. Bacevich (The Baffler): “Kenneth Millar at 100; Ross Macdonald at 59,” by Brian Busby (The Dusty Bookcase); “Ross Macdonald Turns 100” (MysteryPeople); “The Last Testament of Ross Macdonald,” by Leonardo Cassuto (The Boston Globe); “Facing Up to Macdonald’s Fiction,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).

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