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A Biography

by Tom Nolan

Pub Date: March 12th, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-81217-7
Publisher: Scribner

Hagiographic, rags-to-riches, writer-as-middle-class-hero tale; the first biography of a genre master who wrote 18 highly literate detective novels featuring southern California private eye Lew Archer and earned an enormous following among mainstream readers, academes, and literary celebrities. Kenneth Millar (his real name) died at the age of 67 in 1983 of Alzeimers in Santa Barbara, where he lived for most of his adult life with his wife, the Canadian mystery novelist Margaret Sturm Millar. The son of an itinerant newspaper editor, Millar was raised by relatives in central Canada after his family fell apart. An athletic, bisexual loner, he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Colerdige while teaching at the University of Michigan and turning out detective mysteries based on Greek tragedies, with complex characterizations, intricately detailed southern California settings, and Millar’s distinctively rueful compassion for lost children. Among his early fans were New York Times critics Anthony Boucher and John Leonard, who stage-managed Macdonald’s ascent to international fame with enthusiastic praise. Nolan, a biographer of rockers Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers Band (not reviewed) and mystery reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, finds few faults in the shy, slow-talking “philosopher king of detective novelists,” even if Millar seems to have had little understanding of the forces that pushed his tormented alcoholic daughter to suicide. Still, it’s hard not to cheer when Macdonald’s literary idealism, his faith in hard work, his support of lesser-known writers, and his relentless urge for middle-class respectability produce a body of work that brings its author most of the rewards, awards, rave reviews, Hollywood deals, fan worship, and happiness that the writing business can offer. A breathlessly enthusiastic font of praise—most of it justifiable—that also works as a schematic for the demons, both professional and personal, that motivate some of our best writers to toil tirelessly in the genre fields.