Crimeziners who are interested in hardboiled noir from Southern California will no doubt have read the work of Ross Macdonald. Widely touted as a successor to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, Macdonald—or Ken Millar as he was known by everyone, apart from the reading public was a more complex and experimental writer than the other legends of noir.
Early Macdonald novels, such as The Moving Target (1949) and The Drowning Pool (1950) were closely fashioned on the Chandler oeuvre, so closely fashioned in fact that Chandler denounced Millar in a very public manner, an unpleasantness that was to stay with the sensitive Millar for much of his career.
But Millar and his hardboiled protagonist Lew Archer quickly evolved, moving into territory Chandler et al could only have dreamed of. Could you imagine Marlowe dealing with the subject of environmentalism for example?
Millar had a difficult early life that could have so easily led to a career of crime, instead he conquered his disadvantages and headed for The University of Michigan where he achieved a Phd in literature.
Millar’s Phd thesis was on literary bad boy Samuel Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge, an influence he drew on heavily in novels such as The Chill (1964). For many readers Millar’s erudite use of allusion is one of the many joys of his writing. From modern psychology, to Greek Tragedy the poetry of Millar’s work was clear for all to see. Real tragedy in the shape of his tearaway teenage daughter also became a repeated influence on his work. As did the fictional California town of Santa Teresa [Based on Millar’s hometown Santa Barbara]
Tom Nolan’s biography of Millar/Macdonald is methodical and far reaching, if you want to know the astonishing reality of this mans upbringing, it is here in detail. If you want to discover how the murderous psychological trauma caused by his daughters hit and run boozing affected his writing, that is here too, in glorious unwashed detail. We also find out about the frankly bizarre relationship Millar had with wife, crime writer Margret Millar.
When the intellectual athlete Millar tragically lost his mental faculties to Alzheimer’s disease Margret Millar utters the heartless line, “of course I poisoned the dogs, I had to…’ Millar’s wife was a cold sort, neurotic and withdrawn one minute party mad the next, in a way that might suggest bipolar disorder, as it is so charmingly called these days. But one gets the impression Ken could be difficult too, if this book is to believed, so perhaps the Millar’s were well suited to each others company after all.
Whatever the verdict, the details of their marriage provide a fascinating read.The story of Ross Macdonald, as told by Tom Nolan is in turns both tragic and uplifting, it offers very many real insights into the life of a charming and intelligent man who was and still continues to be a crimewriter’s crimewriter.