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Posts For: July 21, 2007

The Mystery of Ross Macdonald

Seeking inspiration and education along with entertainment, generals like to read about earlier generals, presidents about earlier presidents, tycoons about earlier tycoons, and so on. I like to read tales of generals, presidents, tycoons, and other men of action, too, but, as a writer, I have a special fondness for stories about fellow writers, even if they work in very different genres.

I just finished one such book—Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan—which strikes me as particularly inspirational to anyone who is a published author, or aspires to be one. The subject is one of our greatest mystery novelists—a man who is usually considered one of the grand masters of the form, along with his predecessors, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Although Hammett was the most original of the three—he basically invented the hard-boiled detective genre—for some reason, I’ve never found his novels and short stories all that engaging; I make an exception of his best-known work, The Maltese Falcon, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Chandler has always been my favorite mystery novelist (and one of my favorite novelists, period), notwithstanding his problems with plotting, because of his beautiful writing and timeless evocations of my hometown, Los Angeles.

Ross Macdonald, author of classics such as The Galton Case, The Chill, The Goodbye Look, and The Moving Target (filmed as Harper in 1966, starring Paul Newman), featuring detective Lew Archer, has always ranked second in my pantheon. But I never knew much about him until picking up this fascinating biography by the Wall Street Journal’s mystery reviewer, Tom Nolan.

Nolan’s book features many revelations about Macdonald, the pen name for the writer Kenneth Millar. We learn about Macdonald’s relationship with his wife, fellow mystery writer Margaret Millar; the story of their troubled daughter, who as a teenager killed a child in a drunk driving accident, and then died in her early thirties; Macdonald’s seriousness of purpose and generosity to fellow writers. All this interested me.

But what really made the book inspirational was the story of how long it took Macdonald to succeed at his chosen craft. He began writing novels as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1940’s, but he didn’t achieve widespread renown or bestsellerdom until the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. For two decades he churned out well-crafted books, year after year, only to sell a few thousand copies in hardcover and attract positive notices in “mystery roundup” columns relegated to newspaper inside pages. Together, he and his wife often made as much as a high school teacher. Money was a constant worry. But Macdonald kept toiling away, getting better and better, rejecting the extreme violence and bad writing that allowed hacks like Mickey Spillane, author of the Mike Hammer series, to sell far more books. And eventually Macdonald was rewarded by readers and critics. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.

Seeking inspiration and education along with entertainment, generals like to read about earlier generals, presidents about earlier presidents, tycoons about earlier tycoons, and so on. I like to read tales of generals, presidents, tycoons, and other men of action, too, but, as a writer, I have a special fondness for stories about fellow writers, even if they work in very different genres.

I just finished one such book—Ross Macdonald: A Biography by Tom Nolan—which strikes me as particularly inspirational to anyone who is a published author, or aspires to be one. The subject is one of our greatest mystery novelists—a man who is usually considered one of the grand masters of the form, along with his predecessors, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Although Hammett was the most original of the three—he basically invented the hard-boiled detective genre—for some reason, I’ve never found his novels and short stories all that engaging; I make an exception of his best-known work, The Maltese Falcon, which is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Chandler has always been my favorite mystery novelist (and one of my favorite novelists, period), notwithstanding his problems with plotting, because of his beautiful writing and timeless evocations of my hometown, Los Angeles.

Ross Macdonald, author of classics such as The Galton Case, The Chill, The Goodbye Look, and The Moving Target (filmed as Harper in 1966, starring Paul Newman), featuring detective Lew Archer, has always ranked second in my pantheon. But I never knew much about him until picking up this fascinating biography by the Wall Street Journal’s mystery reviewer, Tom Nolan.

Nolan’s book features many revelations about Macdonald, the pen name for the writer Kenneth Millar. We learn about Macdonald’s relationship with his wife, fellow mystery writer Margaret Millar; the story of their troubled daughter, who as a teenager killed a child in a drunk driving accident, and then died in her early thirties; Macdonald’s seriousness of purpose and generosity to fellow writers. All this interested me.

But what really made the book inspirational was the story of how long it took Macdonald to succeed at his chosen craft. He began writing novels as a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the 1940’s, but he didn’t achieve widespread renown or bestsellerdom until the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. For two decades he churned out well-crafted books, year after year, only to sell a few thousand copies in hardcover and attract positive notices in “mystery roundup” columns relegated to newspaper inside pages. Together, he and his wife often made as much as a high school teacher. Money was a constant worry. But Macdonald kept toiling away, getting better and better, rejecting the extreme violence and bad writing that allowed hacks like Mickey Spillane, author of the Mike Hammer series, to sell far more books. And eventually Macdonald was rewarded by readers and critics. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.

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