Fame, Fortune, and Misfortune for Partners
by Z.J. Czupor
This award-winning writing couple met in high school, later married, and proceeded to excel individually as mystery novelists. They are the only husband and wife to each serve as president of the Mystery Writers of America, and each to receive MWA’s Grandmaster Award. They encouraged each other as reader, editor, and critic.
She wrote her first novel in fifteen days in bed while suffering from a migraine headache. He wrote his first novel in thirty nights in a cramped office at the University of Michigan where he taught on a fellowship.
Her sixth novel was bought for filming by Warner Bros.
He wrote his second novel while serving on a ship in the U.S. Navy.
To improve their writing and use of dialogue, the couple frequented court rooms, pawn shops, and bars. They also researched speech patterns, legal cases, police records, and human behavior.
She was the first to achieve fame and praise as a mystery novelist. He would later catch up and eclipse her. They were both credited with elevating the detective novel to the level of literature.
And yet, despite their literary successes, their forty-year marriage was troublesome. They fought often. Their informal motto became I hate you and I love you and it hurts. As a result, they would show up unflatteringly in one another’s novels. In one of his novels, he wrote, “No, I haven’t been drinking, much. Just enough to keep me from strangling my wife.”
In the 1970s, he was the most popular read and critically acclaimed novelist. Literary critics considered him the hardboiled heir apparent to Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) and critics included him in the “holy trinity” of hardboiled crime writers.
He admittedly created plots which were semi-autobiographical as he drew upon his own traumas and personal tragedies. He gained fame and fortune, rising from poverty and abandonment, gained critical literary acclaim, and yet, with his wife, suffered deep misfortune.
The husband author is American-Canadian Kenneth Millar (1915-1983), who is better known by his pen name Ross Macdonald and for his series of hardboiled novels featuring detective Lew Archer.
Macdonald also used the pen names of John Macdonald (borrowed from his father’s first and middle names) and John Ross Macdonald (lifting “Ross” from a cousin). He finally settled on Ross Macdonald and continued using that pen name to avoid confusion with his fellow mystery writer John D. MacDonald (1916-1986), who was writing under his real name.
Throughout his literary career under his own name and three pen names, Macdonald wrote twenty-seven novels and sixteen short stories, plus several essays and articles. Five of his novels were adapted in films.
Starting out, Macdonald wrote four standalone thrillers from 1944-1980 under his real name, Kenneth Millar (pronounced “Mill-er”). Those novels, all published by Alfred A. Knopf, have since been reissued as written by Ross Macdonald.
In those intervening years, he began work on his fictional detective Lew Archer and wrote the first Archer novel in 1947. Interestingly, Knopf editors refused to publish that novel. They rejected the quality of his writing calling it “perfectly impossible.” The company finally accepted his work in 1949 after many revisions and a change of title from The Snatch to The Moving Target. That novel appeared on bookstands under his pen name John Macdonald.
His detective, Lew Archer, first took shape in a short story titled “Find the Woman” but was credited to his real name Ken Millar (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, June 1946). The magazine held a short story contest which Macdonald entered. Beforehand, he wrote two stories “Death by Air” and “Death by Water,” both starring a Los Angeles detective named Joe Rogers. But he scrapped the second story and retitled “Death by Air,” as “Find the Woman,” and entered that version. He won fourth place and $300 in prize money. An up-and-coming writer named William Faulkner (1897-1962) came in second.
Years later, Macdonald’s biographer, Tom Nolan, included both of those original short stories and a third in his 2001 collection of lost Macdonald stories (Stranger in Town), which Nolan edited. “Find the Woman” was re-written, and Nolan said the detective Joe Rogers was changed into Lew Archer.
Macdonald fashioned Archer as a 35-year-old, divorced former cop-turned-private eye in Los Angeles. He was a tough guy, but with humanity, sensitive and self-analytical. Macdonald described Archer in his later years as “a therapist with a private investigator’s license.”
New York Times critic John Leonard (1939-2008) said Macdonald had surpassed the limits of crime fiction to become “a major American novelist.” Ironically, since Macdonald based Archer on Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe, Chandler panned Macdonald’s first novel, calling it “the work of a literary eunuch” and his phrasing “rather repellent.”
In contrast, author, and literary critic Anthony Boucher (1911-1968), in a New York Times book review, called the novel, “the most human and disturbing novel of the hardboiled school in many years.” The 1966 film, Harper, starring Paul Newman, was based on this novel with a script written by William Goldman (1931-2018).
Goldman, who would later become an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, called the Archer novels “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” (Cover review of The Goodbye Look, New York Review of Books, 1969).
On his sixth Archer novel, The Barbarous Coast (1956), he began using the pen name “Ross Macdonald.” And on his novel The Galton Case (1959) Macdonald said he “felt he had made a fairly clean break with the Chandler tradition.” This was the novel that changed direction for Macdonald. Two years later, his novel The Doomsters (1961) would reveal a more mature Lew Archer “who began to understand people less as a detective and more as an empathetic human being.” (Tom Nolan interview, CrimeReads, April 12, 2019).
Nolan, who also wrote as the mystery fiction critic for The Wall Street Journal, said, “He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery…His vision was strong enough to spill into real life, where a news story or a friend’s revelation could prompt the comment, ‘Just like a Ross Macdonald novel.'”
After his tenth Archer novel, Macdonald finally made the bestseller lists, and he would go on to write a total of seventeen Lew Archer novels. He described Archer as one “who sees crime not in terms of polarized good and evil but as a complicated web of pain and human weakness.” In his 1969 novel, The Goodbye Look, Archer says, “I have a secret passion for mercy. But justice is what keeps happening to people.”
Nolan said “Front-page celebrations in The New York Times Book Review and a cover story in Newsweek turned Ross Macdonald’s books about detective Lew Archer into national best-sellers. Movies and television series were made. Millions of Macdonald’s books were sold. After twenty years in the mystery field, Ross Macdonald was an overnight success.”
Kenneth Millar was born in Los Gatos, California but raised in Canada. He grew up poor and was four when his father abandoned the family in Ontario. He and his mother moved often across four provinces to live with relatives. The loss of his father and early trauma would become themes in many of his novels. As a youngster, he said he discovered a Hammett novel, then when he learned the library had others in a restricted area because of adult content, he broke in at night to read them.
While studying at the University of Western Ontario, he chanced a re-meeting with Margaret Sturm, whom he first met when they participated on the high school debate team in Kitchener, Canada, also her hometown. They married the day after his graduation in 1938. A year later, their daughter, Linda Jane, was born. He taught high school for a while and began writing in his spare time.
He later enrolled at the University of Michigan, where in 1952 he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation analyzing British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1772-1834) Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). He also studied under poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) who believed mystery or detective fiction could rise to the level of literature and he encouraged Millar’s interest in the genre.
In between Macdonald’s undergraduate and graduate studies, he spent four years in the U.S. Navy as a communications officer aboard an escort carrier in the Pacific during WWII. Upon his discharge in 1946, the family moved to Santa Barbara, California, which would play a major setting in both his and his wife’s novels.
His wife, Margaret Millar (1915-1994) would, on her own initiative, become an award-winning and acclaimed writer of more than twenty-seven psychological mystery novels and recognized for her cutting wit, innovative plots, and surprise endings. She wrote her first amateur detective novel, The Invisible Worm (1941), in fifteen days while in bed suffering from a migraine. Macdonald helped her to form and revise the manuscript. The publisher Doubleday bought it immediately for $250 (the equivalent of $5,000 today).
She said, “I resolved I wasn’t going to be stuck. I was going to have a career anyway. And that’s when I began to write. And Ken always wanted to be a writer, from day one; he literally wrote all his life. So, it was a nice mating, because in many ways we were very different. He was slow to react, and very thoughtful. And I was quick and impulsive. So, we struck a nice balance, I think.”
After her first novel, she produced five more books in the next four years with the help of Macdonald who served as her editor.
When her 1955 novel, Beast in View (Random House), won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1956, she bested Patricia Highsmith’s (1921-1995) nominated novel The Talented Mr. Ripley (Coward-McCann, 1955).
Interestingly, she almost gave up on Beast in View because she felt that a TV play written by American writer Gore Vidal (1925-2012) had a similar plot to her novel-in-progress. But Macdonald helped her create a plot twist that took her story in a different direction.
Millar’s 1960 novel, A Stranger in My Grave, and her 1964 novel, The Fiend, were also nominated for an Edgar. She served as MWA President in 1957. Then, in 1983, she received MWA’s Grand Master Award, the same year Macdonald died.
Margaret Millar was considered a pioneer in writing about the psychology of women and class distinctions. Semantic scholar Kelly C. Connelly claimed, “Millar’s innovations essentially created a new hybrid of literature: detective literature,” which ignored the traditionally plotted based framework of detective fiction. (From Detective Fiction to Detective Literature: Psychology in the Novels of Dorothy L. Sayers and Margaret Millar, Kelly C. Connelly, Heldref Publications, 2007).
Bestselling crime novelist Laura Lippman called her “one of the most original and vital voices in all of American crime fiction.”
Another reason Ken Millar chose Ross Macdonald as a pseudonym is because Margaret achieved first recognition as the writer named Millar, although she preferred to pronounce it as “Mill-are.”
While their marriage was rocky, they were also friendly to one another. They were proud of each other’s literary achievements, but did keep track of how many books each had published. In the early years of their marriage, Margaret Millar out produced Macdonald but in later years, when his output and fame caught up to hers, it frustrated her, especially when journalists, unaware of her career, would call the home and asked if she was “Mrs. Macdonald.”
To say that one overshadowed the other as a mystery writer is difficult to prove. They were both successful in their own style of writing. Macdonald said, “By going ahead and breaking trail, she helped to make possible for me to become a novelist, as perhaps her life with me had helped to make it possible for her.” He was Millar’s first reader, editor, and cheerleader. Later, she became the same for him.
In 1962, in a story that made national headlines, their sixteen-year-old daughter, Linda Jane (1946-1970), was driving while intoxicated and struck three pedestrian teenage boys. One died and two were hospitalized. Distraught, she fled the scene of the accident and purposely drove into another car in an attempt at suicide. As police drove her to the hospital, she tried to jump from the car. Later, she tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists with a razor. Her parents sent her to a mental hospital, sixty miles away from Santa Barbara.
With mounting legal bills, Macdonald begged his publisher for an advance on his recent novel, The Barbarous Coast. He eventually received several thousand dollars to help cover the expenses. The Millars then sold their home and left Santa Barbara for Menlo Park, California, where Linda finished high school.
Three years later, while on parole and under psychiatric care, Linda disappeared from her college dorm and became the subject of a high profile missing persons case. Millar sent out an appeal through the news media for her to return home. After an extensive and failed search, a bar patron in Reno, Nevada, recognized Linda. Macdonald found her and took her home.
Linda later married and had a son but continued suffering from mental instability. She suffered a minor stroke and one night in 1970, at the age of thirty-one, died in her sleep.
The episode not only traumatized Linda but left Macdonald hospitalized for mental exhaustion. He underwent psychiatric counseling which would dramatically impact his writing and the course of his crime fiction. From 1960 on, his novels became more personal, and his detective Lew Archer pivoted to understanding crimes more than solving them. In his novel, The Chill, Archer says, “Some men spend their lives looking for ways to punish themselves for having been born.”
After Linda’s death, Macdonald turned to Pulitzer Prize winning author Eudora Welty (1909-2001) for solace. They corresponded passionately, though were never lovers. Their written exchange between 1970-1982 was published as Meanwhile There Are Letters (ed. Suzanne Marrs, Tom Nolan, 2015).
In Nolan’s biography, he said the Millar family pretended to be happy, but instead called them deranged, full of anger and emotional neglect, filled with competitive spirit, and manipulative.
He wanted more sex. She slept in a separate room. After one epic fight, Millar threw a raw egg at Macdonald. He ducked and it splattered on a wall. It remained there for days as neither one took the initiative to clean it off. (Los Angeles Review of Books, Nov. 28, 2013).
Critics have assumed that both Ken and Margaret Millar used their daughter’s troubles as plot devices in their own novels. In 1973, Macdonald published Sleeping Beauty, a novel about a young girl who disappeared. Lew Archer finds her and returns her to her family.
In fact, many of his Archer novels are haunted by themes of lost children, adults facing past regrets, family secrets, wealth and poverty, ambition and deceit, abandonment, and instability. Nolan said, “Ordinary families became the stuff of mystery; and there was always guilt enough to go around.” (Ross Macdonald: A Biography, Tom Nolan, Scribner, 1999).
In 1974, Macdonald boasted to friends his net worth was more than $1million (equal to more than $6 million today).
Over the years, his writing matured as California changed in the 1960s where prosperity collided with corruption and the abuse of power. He wrote less of hoodlums and gangsters and began focusing on dysfunctional families, family secrets, and dubious characters, and the new money that spawned sex, drugs, and violence.
Macdonald completed his twenty-fourth and last novel, The Blue Hammer (1976), before his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Even though Millar had recovered from cancer and was nearly blind from macular degeneration, she cared for him until his death in 1983, at the age of sixty-seven. She outlived him by eleven years and kept writing until her death at the age of seventy-nine.
Millar said that in the last few weeks before Macdonald died, she took him to the beach to swim, which he always loved to do. “He came up to the cabana where I was waiting. ‘Hi Maggie,’ he said. ‘You’re looking wonderful.’ This might not seem much of a highlight except that this was the first time in six months he had recognized me. The moment of recognition passed and his face went blank again. I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
Margaret Millar’s complete works are available in a seven-volume set by Syndicate Books.
Near the end of her life, Millar said, “Because now, both of us are being republished all the time. If we had written straight novels, we would be—gone. But there is always an audience for mystery fiction.”
Ross Macdonald’s astrological sign was Sagittarius, “the archer,” which he chose as a last name for his new detective. He also paid tribute to the fictional detective Miles Archer, Sam Spade’s partner, as Archer was killed in the beginning of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1930). Then, he derived his detective’s first name, “Lew” from Lewis Wallace (1827-1905), the author of the historical novel Ben-Hur (1880). Finally, he patterned his detective on Raymond Chandler’s fictional detective Philip Marlowe.
Hammett and Chandler’s novels were also published by Alfred A. Knopf, so critics viewed Macdonald as their heir apparent when his debut Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target, was published by Knopf in 1949. He authored more books than Hammett and Chandler combined. Anthony Boucher called Macdonald the best writer of the three.
At the time of his death, Macdonald “was the best-known and most highly regarded crime fiction writer in America,” said his biographer Tom Nolan and assumed, while no accurate estimates are available, that he sold millions of books. ThrillingDetective.com claimed Macdonald had “Stephen King-like sales.”
Macdonald won numerous awards including: the Silver Dagger from British Crime Writers Association (1964); Gold Dagger from CWA (1965); the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America in 1974; and “The Eye,” the lifetime achievement award from The Private Eye Writers of America (1981). In 1965 he served as MWA’s president.
William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for the movie Harper, won an Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay from Mystery Writers of America (1967).
One of the very few times Ken and Margaret’s work appeared together in print was in 1931 when their high school magazine, The KCI Grumbler, published their short stories in the same issue.
As a couple, Ken and Margaret were prolific writers. On average they completed a book a year and collectively produced fifty-three books in forty-five years.
Both Ken and Margaret Millar were avid bird watchers and were founding members of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society. For her service to the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, the Los Angeles Times named Margaret the “Woman of the Year” in 1965.