Book: Ross Macdonald

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Ross Macdonald: A Biography

Author: Tom Nolan
Publisher: Scribner

When he died in 1983, Ross Macdonald was the best-known and most highly regarded crime-fiction writer in America. Long considered the rightful successor to the mantles of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and his Lew Archer-novels were hailed by The New York Times as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”

Now, in the first full-length biography of this extraordinary and influential writer, a much fuller picture emerges of a man to whom hiding things came as second nature. While it was no secret that Ross Macdonald was the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar—a Santa Barbara man married to another good mystery writer, Margaret Millar—his official biography was spare. Drawing on unrestricted access to the Kenneth and Margaret Millar Archives, on more than forty years of correspondence, and on hundreds of interviews with those who knew Millar well, author Tom Nolan has done a masterful job of filling in the blanks between the psychologically complex novels and the author’s life—both secret and overt.

Ross Macdonald came to crime-writing honestly. Born in northern California to Canadian parents, Kenneth Millar grew up in Ontario virtually fatherless, poor, and with a mother whose mental stability was very much in question. From the age of twelve, young Millar was fighting, stealing, and breaking social and moral laws; by his own admission, he barely escaped being a criminal. Years later, Millar would come to see himself in his tales’ wrongdoers. “I don’t have to be violent,” he said, “My books are.”

How this troubled young man came to be one of the most brilliant graduate students in the history of the University of Michigan and how this writer, who excelled in a genre all too often looked down upon by literary critics, came to have a lifelong friendship with Eudora Welty are all examined in the pages of Tom Nolan’s meticulous biography. We come to a sympathetic understanding of the Millars’ long, and sometimes rancorous, marriage and of their life in Santa Barbara, California, with their only daughter, Linda, whose legal and emotional traumas lie at the very heart of the story. But we also follow the trajectory of a literary career that began in the pages of Manhunt and ended with the great respect of such fellow writers as Marshall McLuhan, Hugh Kenner, Nelson Algren, and Reynolds Price, and the longtime distinguished publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

As Ross Macdonald: A Biography makes abundantly clear, Ross Macdonald’s greatest character—above and beyond his famous Lew Archer—was none other than his creator, Kenneth Millar.


More caring than Chandler, more productive than Hammett, Ross Macdonald was arguably America’s best crime novelist, and Tom Nolan—who has been working on this large and impressive biography since its subject’s death in 1983—makes that argument eloquently. With great energy and considerable art, he captures the essence of a remarkable man, born Kenneth Millar, as his life moved from a bleak, tormented childhood in the wilds of Canada, through an uncertain love-hate relationship with the world of academia, and then to early struggles, growing success, and family tragedy on the golden shores of California.

Along the way, Nolan charts one of the most unusual literary marriages in recent memory, to fellow mystery writer Margaret Millar—a working relationship so carefully protected and circumscribed that it probably did irrevocable damage to their only child. The author also enlivens the usually dreary details of a writer’s financial life with shafts of brilliant insight, especially into the strange relationship between Macdonald and his lifelong publisher, Alfred Knopf, who Margaret aptly describes as “a troubled and a troubling man.”

But perhaps Nolan’s most impressive achievement is in showing exactly how and why the murder mystery became a worthy medium for some of the world’s smartest people who read and write in the form. This book will make you seek out the best of Ross Macdonald, available in quality paperback editions: The Chill, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Wycherly Woman, Black Money, The Drowning Pool, The Moving Target, The Underground Man, and The Galton Case. —Dick Adler

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