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
From Publishers Weekly
All aficionados of the mystery genre know the work of Ross Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar), whom Nolan calls the "philosopher king of detective novelists," the author of 18 Lew Archer novels and heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Now, this first full biography reveals, deeply and affectionately, the man behind the fiction. Millar started writing thrillers for the money but wound up irrevocably changing the detective novel, making it both more socially conscious and psychologically probing and bringing mysteries onto the bestseller list along the way. Nolan's elegant, moving account neither sensationalizes nor glosses over the unpleasant events of Millar's life: his sexual experiences at a very young age; his daughter's brief, troubled life; his heartbreaking decline and death from Alzheimer's disease. As a youth, Millar used books to escape his hardscrabble Canadian youth and his emotionally disturbed mother (who almost abandoned him to an orphanage). Some of his early favorites were Dickens's Oliver Twist and the novels of Dashiell Hammett, whom he felt "told the truth about how the world worked." As an adult, perhaps because he had looked for mentors to replace his own absent father, Millar was "surrogate father to probably hundreds of people." Many, like singer-songwriter Warren Zevon (who struggled with liquor and drugs) worshipped him. Zevon tells of the day he "went to the door, and there was Lew Archer, come to save my life." Millar's relationship with his wife of 46 years, Margaret Millar (herself a bestselling mystery writer) was more complex: they were at once competitive and supportive of each other's work. Perhaps the best description of this biography?with its loves and betrayals, professional successes and personal tragedies?is that it reads like a Ross Macdonald novel, which is high praise, indeed.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.