Remembering Ross (Forgotten Book Friday)

A Biography Ross Macdonald : A Biography by Tom Nolan

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ross Macdonald is always mentioned in the same breath as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. And of the three, Macdonald was the most literate.

Here now is the full story of how Ken Millar of Ontario became Ross Macdonald of Santa Barbara, California. Biographer Tom Nolan traces Millars origins from an anonymous birth in the Bay Area to a bleak childhood spent mostly in Ontario.

If his creation, Lew Archer, seemed like an outsider, it might have been because Millar/Macdonald spent his life as a wanderer. From Ontario to Alberta to Vancouver and back, then across the border to Michigan to California, with a stint aboard a Navy ship at the end of World War II. He and wife Margaret Millar, a noted mystery writer in her own right, were the classic couple that couldn’t live with each other, but couldn’t live without each other either.

Nolan uses Millar’s recollections of his childhood in Kitchener and elsewhere in Canada to show how Millar the boy almost became Millar the criminal, acting out, even indulging in homosexual acts, to rebel against an overly religious mother and an absent father. Millar would make a conscious decision to become, instead, a scholar, eventually earning his Ph D with a dissertation on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom he would spend a lifetime studying.

As Millar’s writing career begins, Nolan divides chapters almost along the writing of each Lew Archer novel. As Millar (as Macdonald) moved away from imitating Raymond Chandler (which Chandler resented) to becoming a more psychological writer, the books start to parallel their author’s life. In the wake of daughter Linda’s disappearance in 1958, Macdonald begins focusing on the missing child as a touchstone. After her death in 1970, his work turns more toward the tragic consequences of family secrets.

Perhaps most tragic is the deterioration of Macdonald’s mind at the peak of his creative prowess. Starting with THE GOODBYE LOOK, Macdonald had become one of America’s (and Canada’s) pre-eminent writers. And yet after the release of the final Archer novel, THE BLUE HAMMER, his mind clouded, his ability to concentrate draining away. By the time of his death in 1983, he had taken hisplace alongside contemporaries Norman Mailer and Joan Diodon as one of the premier writers of his day. Yet even to the end, when he could barely remember his own name, Macdonald/Millar would still swim in the ocean everyday, at least until he was able.

Millar wanted to round off his Archer series with one last novel – a tome delving into Archer’s Canadian past – but his illness prevented him. Experts agree, though, he left behind one of the most impressive bodies of work not only as a crime writer, but as a seriousness novelist.

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