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Ross MacDonald : A Biography Hardcover – March 12, 1999


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition edition (March 12, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684812177
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684812175
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #722,252 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tom Nolan, the author of the critically acclaimed and Edgar Award-nominated Ross Macdonald: A Biography, is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts page. He lives in Los Angeles.

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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See all 18 customer reviews
Reading this book will dispell much of that envy.
A Lover of Good Books
Nolan has done a truly masterful job of offering us Kenneth Millar, without ever once inflicting any kind of authorial (hence subjective) opinions on the material.
Charlotte Vale-Allen
Mr. Nolan's detailed and very fair biography of Ross MacDonald is the finest literary biography I have ever read.
George Duncan

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Jerre Lloyd on July 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
As a personal friend of Ken Millar (Ross MacDonald) during the sixties and seventies, as well as a regular attendant at the writers' luncheon he encouraged and supported in Santa Barbara during those years, I was especially interested in reading Tom Nolan's "Ross MacDonald: A Biography." I was curious to see whether the writer could possibly capture the personality of Ken, a man whose combination of brilliance and internal conflicts made him so enigmatic that most people, even after knowing him for years, could scarcely undestand him at all. I was pleased and amazed to discover, after reading the book, that Tom Nolan had come closer to explaining him than anyone I'm aware of--and by "anyone" I mean to include not just those who have written about him, but also those other friends of his, who, like me, found him so fascinating and incomprehensible. And this from an author who never even met the man! While it is true that Tom Nolan, as a biographer, had to present sides of Millar's pesonality and events from his life that Millar, understandably, had been interested in keeping secret while he was alive, Ken indicated to me many times that he knew anything that had happened to him would, of necessity, have to be eventually included in any biography that was ever done, and I don't feel he would have had an objection to the balanced and considerate way that material was presented by Tom Nolan in "Ross MacDonald: A Biography." I certainly had no objection. The forthright, kind and dispassionate way Nolan treated this material reminds me of those same qualities I often observed in Ken Millar. Had they met, he and Tom Nolan would have become great friends.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Charlotte Vale-Allen VINE VOICE on December 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A good biography defines for the reader the complete subject. An exceptional biography not only defines the subject but offers insights and generates feeling for the subject. Nolan has done a truly masterful job of offering us Kenneth Millar, without ever once inflicting any kind of authorial (hence subjective) opinions on the material.
As someone who, to this day, can remember many of Millar/Macdonald's exquisitely crafted lines and scenes, and who loved both his work and that of his wife Margaret Millar, it was a wonderful experience to read this book. Since they were so integral to each other's lives, author Nolan has wisely, and quite fully, included Margaret in this biography in order to give us a full perspective on their life together--a pair of (ultimately) enormously successful writers who happened to be married.
Margaret comes across as a clever, difficult, quite damaged woman, often hiding behind throwaway quips and quite caustic remarks; not at all sociable, undeniably gifted, and possessed of a humor that was frequently cruel.
Millar, on the other hand, is shown to be, first and foremost, a generous, thoughtful, kind, and immensely gifted man with a fine, fine mind. His long struggle to achieve the success he so richly deserved is, in some ways, very contemporary; in other ways, it's reflective of the times (the late 40s through the late 70s).
Rich, too, in physical detail, what I particularly liked was Nolan's comprehension of Millar's sense of being an alien in America. Despite his American birth, having grown up in Canada, Millar brought to his life and to his work a kind of interior chill that is so very much a part of Canadian life.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Ginny Alexander on June 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I am an avid reader of mystery novels from the time I was a little girl - being the only girl in my group of friends to read mystery. I loved Lew Archer stories but was not really knowledgeable about the author. When I came across the book in the library, I checked it out and thoroughly enjoyed the book. His life was so wonderful yet pitifully sad. I thought Tom Nolan did a great job doing his research and his talent for writing made the book one that I could not put down until I had completely finished it. I can identify with some of the things McDonald's daughter went through. Her life hit a nerve and I believe Tom Nolan did an excellent job describing that part. I am an aspiring writer myself and I was amazed at the time and effort Tom put into this book. Hats off to him and I will be looking to read other books by him. The photograph of the author is very familiar to me. I feel that I may have known him. Strange.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Lover of Good Books on December 3, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This exhaustively researched book is not so much a biography of Ken Millar (real name of "Ross Macdonald") so much as a history of Millar's career as a writer, and as such it is extremely valuable to anyone who dreams of being an author.
Millar examplifies the classic situation of the genre author who achieves "overnight" fame after publishing 18 previous critically aclaimed books. This book makes it clear just how much work and how much frustration is involved in the life of the genre novelist, as well as portraying how complex it can be to deal with success when it finally comes.
What is particularly interesting in this story too, is the fact that Millar's wife, Margaret, was a successful mystery writer long before he was. The way that these two authors, with their quirky, authorial personalities, supported each other through their life's journeys and tragedies is particularly poignant, though Nolan, unfortunately, takes a very negative attitude--unjustified by much of the data he himself presents--towards Margaret's personality and achievements.
Today's novelists often look back with envy at those who wrote in the "Golden Age" of the pulps, before TV had ended the brief Age of Literacy of the first half of this century. Reading this book will dispell much of that envy. The tiny numbers of books sold in that "golden age" (3,500 being a typical hard cover sale of Ross Macdonald's first 16 books) and the pathetic sums paid him for paperback rights to books that had gotten enthusiastic NYTimes reviews show us that if anything today's genre writers are doing better(in adjusted dollars), not worse than those of Millar's day.
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