In a 1965 magazine essay, Ross Macdonald—who had by then published a dozen novels starring his increasingly empathetic and psychologically sensitive Los Angeles private investigator, Lew Archer—said of his protagonist: “He is less a doer than a questioner, a consciousness in which the meanings of other lives emerge.” Thirty-five years after Dashiell Hammett brought San Francisco snoop Sam Spade to life in print, a quarter-century after Raymond Chandler introduced readers to another LA gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, and 18 years after Mickey Spillane unleashed Mike Hammer on an unsuspecting Manhattan, Macdonald was defining his differences with the wisecrack-chewing, guns-blazing, bombshell-bedding hard-boiled school of early detective fiction. He was also eschewing the romantic trappings with which Chandler had embroidered the genre, recasting the PI as a tarnished knight errant. Instead, Macdonald strove to compose carefully plotted narratives, rich with social realism and savvy to generation-gap disappointments, in which criminal acts serve to open doors into the troubled psyches of his characters. Archer’s actions, he explained, “are largely directed to putting together the stories of other people’s lives and discovering their significance.”
In other words, Archer was equal parts shamus and shrink.
2015 marks the centennial of Macdonald’s birth—or, rather, the birth of Kenneth Millar, his real name. The future author took his initial breath in northern California on December 13, 1915, but soon relocated with his parents to Canada, where he lived an often-unsettled existence until moving back to the States in the 1940s. After producing four stand-alone mysteries under his own moniker, he finally launched his Archer series with 1949’s The Moving Target. Seventeen more Archer novels followed, as Millar adopted the Ross Macdonald nom de plume, saw his yarns translated for movies (starring Paul Newman) and television (with Peter Graves), and was eventually extolled, together with Hammett and Chandler, as one of the most important developers of 20th-century American private eye fiction. After Macdonald died from Alzheimer’s disease in July 1983, noted Chandler biographer Frank MacShane called him “one of the best writers of his generation.”
Macdonald’s impact on the genre was “incalculable,” says Tom Nolan, an LA resident and Wall Street Journal books critic, whose Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999) is the foremost study of this novelist’s life and literary labors. “All the household-name mystery writers since the 1970s in a sense owe their careers to his crossover onto mainstream-fiction bestseller lists; he paved the way for Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman and dozens of others. And he set an artistic standard that many authors still aspire to.”
Publisher Library of America honors this fictionist’s contributions with a handsome new Nolan-edited omnibus, Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s (the first of three planned LOA collections of the author’s work). In addition to its quartet of Lew Archer outings—which include two turning-point efforts, The Doomsters and The Galton Case, that show the evolution of Macdonald’s storytelling voice and his readiness to craft fiction from the facts of his own life (especially childhood traumas and the woes surrounding his disturbed only child, Linda)—Nolan’s new volume offers a handful of “other writings,” among them a splendid letter Macdonald sent to publisher Alfred A. Knopf in 1952 that deftly contrasts his work with that of his contemporaries.
Further exploiting the Macdonald centenary, Nolan has allied himself with Mississippi educator/author Suzanne Marrs, the author of Eudora Welty: A Biography, to produce Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald. Due out in July, it’s a moving portrait of two celebrated wordsmiths—separated by history, geography and literary genres—who, beginning in 1970, built a relationship through hundreds of witty, sometimes tender missives that brought them each inspiration and strength.
Sixteen years after I last interviewed Tom Nolan, on the subject of his Macdonald bio, I took the opportunity recently to quiz him about his work on these two new releases.
Do you remember the first Ross Macdonald novel you read?
I was 11 when I first read a Ross Macdonald book. That was in 1959, the year his daughter, Linda, disappeared from college [near Sacramento, California] for eight days; and her dad went looking for her. “The Case of the Missing Coed” was front-page news for a week. Linda was mistakenly thought to be in LA, and Macdonald rushed to Hollywood to help look for her. He was all over the papers, the radio, the TV, begging for her return. The news stories recounted Linda’s involvement in a hit-and-run accident in Santa Barbara three years earlier in which a 13-year-old boy was killed. I remembered lying in bed one warm evening in 1956, and through my open bedroom window hearing teenagers in the yard next door talking about the rash of adolescent car crashes in Santa Barbara—including, worst of all, this mystery writer’s daughter’s.
I saw a Ross Macdonald paperback in a bookrack that week in ’59 and said to myself: “This is that man.” On the back of this Bantam book was a strange author photo (taken, I’d much later learn, in Detroit in 1948): Macdonald wearing trench-coat and fedora, in full black silhouette—an anonymous (and pseudonymous) man smoking a cigarette in the shadows.
Not long after, I read his 1956 novel, The Barbarous Coast.
Ross Macdonald died 32 years ago. There have been myriad PI novelists and other crime-fiction writers who’ve come up through the ranks and gained renown since then. So why should people still be reading Macdonald’s tales?
They’re so beautifully written; he admired (and was admired by) poets, and he had the poet’s touch. And they’re written from deeply felt experience—full of events, situations, and people we all may relate to. His overarching theme, you might say, is the dysfunctional family; and all families are dysfunctional at least to some degree. And he cares about every single character in his books; he sees them as individuals—and you [as the reader] do, too.
How did this new Library of America collection of Macdonald’s work come into being?
In 1995, the Library of America brought Raymond Chandler into its fold. I interviewed LOA publisher Max Rudin by telephone about this event and took the occasion to ask if the LOA might someday include Macdonald. He said they were already planning to! Geoffrey O’Brien, the wonderful critic who’s also the LOA’s editor in chief, is a longtime Macdonald appreciator. But the Library wanted first to present Macdonald’s chronological predecessors in the tradition, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The rights to Hammett’s works then were held by different parties, so while that was being legally sorted, the LOA went ahead with Chandler. Hammett followed a few years later. And now, at long last, we have Macdonald.
Macdonald saw seven of his Lew Archer novels published during the 1950s, yet only four of those made in into your new collection. How did you choose which to champion in this way? And why didn’t the other three make your cut?
It’s not so much that the other three didn’t make the cut as that practical considerations prevailed; LOA volumes are generous in size—this Macdonald collection is over 900 pages—but they can’t contain everything.
The Way Some People Die  was the third Lew Archer novel, and in it I believe Macdonald shook off his most derivative hard-boiled influences and hit his own first stride. It’s a terrific book, and it’s still some people’s favorite Archer. It’s written with great assurance and flair. I think it’s a genre classic.
The Barbarous Coast might be called Macdonald’s “Hollywood novel” (though Hollywood plays a significant part in many Archer chronicles). The movie studio [in that story]—with its soundstage-warehouse stuffed as full of props as Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, its front-gate guard who knows every visitor by name and its tangle-town back-lot of false-front streets—was physically modeled on Republic Pictures, a lot Macdonald and his wife [fellow mystery writer Margaret Millar] visited in the 1950s when they wrote some scripts for the syndicated-TV cop series City Detective. Studio chief Simon Graff was based in small part on Darryl F. Zanuck, one of whose Palm Springs parties Macdonald and his wife attended in 1950 as guests of her publisher Bennett Cerf.
The Doomsters  marked another big step in Macdonald’s artistic and personal development. In writing it, he incorporated insights earned during his daughter’s Santa Barbara travails and his own subsequent Bay Area psychoanalysis. The world was even less of a black-and-white place now to Macdonald—and to Lew Archer.
The Galton Case  was a conscious attempt by Macdonald to dramatize elements of his own personal history. In consequence, it has fascinating Canadian and Michigan content, as well as in parts an intimacy of tone that was new to the Archer books. The poet Chad Bolling is in large part inspired by real-life poets Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen. The poem “Luna,” by “John Brown” (the missing Tony Galton), is a poem Macdonald himself wrote at age 20 or so.
Now let’s talk about your second major Macdonald book this year, Meanwhile There Are Letters. Was this project inspired by your continuing research into the Macdonald archives at the University of California-Irvine, or did it have other roots?
Miss Welty spoke of the correspondence when I interviewed her in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1990. She said she had both sides of it—Macdonald’s letters to her, and also hers to him (which had been returned to her after Macdonald’s death by “a friend out there”)—and that when she died it would all be given to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. She’d be glad for me to see it, she half-invited—but it was on her home’s second story, and her doctor had forbidden her to climb the stairs anymore. I think she may also have been reluctant to show the letters then with Margaret Millar still alive. (Maggie died in 1994.)
After Miss Welty died (in 2001), her friend the scholar Suzanne Marrs drew effectively on letters by both Welty and Macdonald in her splendid 2005 Welty biography. I was thrilled by the quality of the letters quoted. In 2006, I met Suzanne at the Virginia Festival of the Book and suggested we co-edit the Welty/Macdonald correspondence. She said yes that instant. Nine years later, we look forward to the July publication, by Arcade, of Meanwhile There Are Letters.
What do you think were the most valuable or satisfying things these authors derived from their epistolary relationship?
Someone to whom they could express personal thoughts and feelings in ways impossible or uncomfortable or inappropriate with other correspondents. Someone with profound interest in their feelings and perceptions, who took joy in their existence. Someone who cherished them.
You write in your introduction that “by 1977”—seven years after they’d commenced penning letters to one another—“Ken knew Eudora well and surely sensed that they could have managed a truer union of writing lives than he and Margaret had achieved.” Why was the Macdonalds’ then almost 40-year marriage unsatisfying to him, and did he really fall in love with Welty, who was more than half a decade his senior?
The Macdonalds (or the Millars, if you will) seemed at semi-cross purposes from the day they married in 1938. Margaret told me that when they returned from their honeymoon in a friend’s guest cottage on a bug-infested Ontario island, she was ready for a divorce—and she was no more than half-joking. However, she became pregnant right away, though she hadn’t intended to—and felt trapped after the birth of their only child, Linda [in 1939]. The couple quarreled over how to raise their daughter, with Margaret adhering to the “scientific” pre–Dr. Spock method of John Broadus Watson, whose Behaviorism discouraged giving children “unnecessary” affection. The Millars endured dreadful travails together, though, throughout Linda’s troubled adolescence; and once Linda married, her parents had good and pleasant mutual years in the 1960s. After Linda’s 1970 death, though, husband and wife grew apart; writer Brad Darrach described the “sinkhole” or “chasm” he thought characterized their marriage by 1974. In later years, Maggie was given to disparaging her husband in front of people, even shouting at him. But when she became ill, with lung cancer and then macular degeneration, he was there to care for her.
I do believe Macdonald was in love with Welty, and she with him. Their love was expressed through letters. Age difference was not a factor. When Macdonald met author Reynolds Price, Welty’s much younger protégé, in Mississippi and told him that he loved Eudora, Price replied, “Oh of course, we all love Eudora.” “No, you don’t understand, that’s not what I mean,” Macdonald said. “You love her as a friend. I love her as a woman.” Macdonald scholar Peter Wolfe [Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams, 1977] said: “He told me that he loved her.” And the love was reciprocated, as Welty’s friends (and letters) have attested.
Did Margaret Millar have any sense of how her husband felt about Welty?
Being a bright person, she must have. She told Miss Welty she sometimes read her letters to Macdonald when he was away—but “only to see if there’s anything in them he needs to be told.” In time, apparently Macdonald bundled up all of his letters from Welty and concealed them in a private place.
Yet Margaret treated Eudora with courtesy (in the context of her habitual volatility) during Welty’s Santa Barbara visits—and she wrote and thanked Eudora for inspiring her out of her writer’s block during Welty’s first visit to the annual Santa Barbara Writers Conference—after which Maggie wrote and published her final five books.
If you could step into a handy time machine and travel back to interview Macdonald, what would you most like to ask him?
For more details about his self-described “attempted suicide” in the early 1950s. I’d be interested in learning of other facts, episodes, nuances I might not have discovered in my years of research. And I’d love to know what he thought of the biography, but this being a time-machine visit, I guess he couldn’t have read it yet.