This Day In Literary History
On December 13th, 1915, the famous Canadian-American writer Kenneth Millar, best known by his pseudonym Ross Macdonald, was born in Los Gatos, California, to Canadian parents who then moved back to their hometown of Kitchener, Ontario.
When Millar was a boy, his father suddenly walked out on the family. Millar found himself moving frequently, shuffled between his mother and various relatives. Years later, the themes of broken homes and domestic discord would feature prominently in his fiction.
In 1938, while living in Canada, the 23-year-old Kenneth Millar met and married his wife, Margaret Sturm, who would become a successful mystery writer under her married name, Margaret Millar. She bore him a daughter, Linda. Kenneth Millar began his literary career writing short stories for pulp magazines.
To avoid being confused with his wife, Kenneth Millar took the pen name John Macdonald. Then he learned that there was a famous writer called John D. Macdonald. To avoid confusion again, Millar changed his pseudonym to John Ross Macadonald before settling on Ross Macdonald as his permanent pen name.
For his college education, Kenneth Millar attended the University of Michigan in the United States, where he earned a degree in literature. In 1944, while doing his graduate work, his first novel was published.
The Dark Tunnel, aka I Die Slowly, published under his first pseudonym John Macdonald, was a spy thriller. In it, college professor Robert Branch ridicules his best friend for suspecting that a Nazi spy may be lurking in their sleepy Midwestern town.
Branch is more interested in the fact that his German ex-girlfriend has accepted a position at the university where he teaches. Trouble lands a one-two punch when first Branch's ex is suddenly engaged to marry the son of the university's German professor.
Then, Branch witnesses his suspicious best friend fall to his death from his office window. Branch is the only one who doesn't believe that his friend's death was a suicide. When the professor tries to solve the crime, he finds himself marked for death.
The same year that Kenneth Millar's first novel was published, he joined the Navy, as World War II was still raging. He served for two years as a communications officer. After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Michigan, earned his Ph.D., and continued with his literary career.
Millar's third novel, Blue City (1947), marked his transition to hard-boiled detective fiction. It told the story of Johnny Weather, a young soldier who returns from the war to find that his estranged father is dead.
His father, a nightclub owner, was a prominent figure involved in the corruption of the town, and the police are more than happy to let his murder remain unsolved.
As Johnny Weather tries to solve the crime, he finds that more people than just the cops prefer that his father's murder remains unsolved, even the man's ex-wife, who attempts to seduce Johnny. The novel would be adapted as a feature film in 1986.
In 1949, Kenneth Millar published The Moving Target, his first novel featuring a detective character who had been the subject of a short story series.
Lew Archer, named after writer Lew Wallace and Philip Marlowe's partner Miles Archer, was not your typical detective. We learn a lot about him in his first novel.
Big (6'2") and tough, yet intelligent and compassionate, Lew Archer possessed far greater depth and humanity than the average hard-boiled detective.
A troubled child (he claimed that he once "took the strap away from my old man") turned petty thief, Archer was befriended and reformed by a kindhearted older policeman.
Archer became a cop himself, training with the Long Beach (California) Police Department. When he finds that the department is a cesspool of corruption, he won't go along with it, and is kicked off the force.
With the war on, Archer joins the Army and serves in military intelligence. After the war ends, he returns home and becomes a private detective. While he solves crimes, Archer pines for his ex-wife Sue and drinks too much.
In his first novel, he's hired by the dispassionate wife of an eccentric oil tycoon who has mysteriously vanished. His attempts to solve the crime lead him to a strange cast of characters and numerous other crimes that must be solved before he can solve the one that he was hired to investigate.
What makes the Lew Archer novels so memorable is that they're more than just detective novels. Using incredibly complex plots and adding a great deal of psychological depth and insights to his characters' motivations, Millar's detective novels were essentially part whodunit and part psychological thriller.
A huge hit with genre fans and literary critics alike, Lew Archer's adventures would be adapted for the screen and television. The most famous film adaptations were Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975), which starred Paul Newman as the iconic detective.
In these films, Lew Archer's last name was changed to Harper. Some say it was because Paul Newman believed that the letter H was lucky for him, having previously starred in the classic films The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963).
However, others, including Harper screenwriter William Goldman, claimed that the producers changed the name to save money, as they hadn't bought the rights to the entire Lew Archer series, only a couple of novels.
Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, wrote eighteen Lew Archer novels. His last, The Blue Hammer, was published in 1976. He died of Alzheimer's disease in 1983 at the age of 67.
Quote Of The Day
"There's nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure." - Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar)
Today's video features a reading from Ross Macdonald's classic Lew Archer novel, The Ivory Grin (1952). Enjoy!