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A Not-So-Golden State

The detective stories of Ross Macdonald
The Library of America is to literature what Cooperstown is to baseball—a sort of Valhalla created to immortalize this country’s finest writers. And like the storied traditions of our national pastime, the handsome black-jacketed volumes of the series summon forth a completist’s spirit. Were I a wealthy man with plenty of available shelf space (or a younger man with plenty of available time), I’d acquire the entire Library collection, now inching up toward three hundred volumes, with more to come.

Part of the draw, I confess, lies in the old-fashioned gallantry and grandeur behind the enterprise. The death of the book may well loom just around the corner, but the curators of the Library of America choose to pretend otherwise. It’s a bit like deciding to erect a magnificent new passenger rail terminal in the waning days of the 1950s—building a legacy for the ages when the objects of your efforts are about to be rudely consigned to history’s dustbin.

Still, like any club purporting to be exclusive, the Library of America sooner or later confronts this question: How wide can we open our doors before the riffraff start turning up? The nonprofit enterprise began publishing in the spring of 1982 with Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Does a pulp maestro like Ross Macdonald belong in such august company? Judging by the work brought together in his Four Novels of the 1950s (Library of America, $37.50), the answer is a qualified yes.

Ross Macdonald was the pen name of Kenneth Millar (1915–1983), who published more than two dozen novels, most of them featuring private detective Lew Archer as his two-fisted protagonist. During his heyday, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Macdonald pretty much owned the unofficial Hammett-Chandler Chair of Hardboiled Crime Fiction. He won awards and sold plenty of books, with some of them going on to serve as Hollywood fodder. On the whole, Macdonald did okay—indeed, a good deal more than okay.

By all accounts, Millar did not take much joy from the success he achieved. Haunted by insecurity, battered by disappointments in his personal life, and troubled by doubts related to his sexuality, he was not a happy man. Yet all this angst made for rich material that informed the recurring themes of his writing: the crushing pain of ruptured relationships and the yearning for reconciliation and restoration.

Storm and Stress

Although born in California, Millar soon thereafter left that state with his Canadian parents when they returned home to Ontario. During a difficult childhood, he experienced at first hand trials similar to those endured by the characters in his fiction. When he was four, his father walked out and disappeared from his life. Short on money, his mother farmed her young son out to live with various relatives. In an essay written years later, he recalled that by his sixteenth year he “had lived in fifty houses and committed the sin of poverty in each of them.” The deprivation, rootlessness, and overarching sense of abandonment that haunted his early life left deep scars.

After Millar finished high school, his father died; his mother died not long afterward. Proceeds from a small insurance policy enabled him to attend college at the University of Waterloo and then to transfer to the University of Western Ontario. There he wooed Margaret Sturm, herself the product of a troubled adolescence. Like Millar, Margaret nursed ambitions of becoming a writer. One day after his graduation in 1938, they married. The union proved enduring but tumultuous and taxed both parties.

Life in Santa Barbara was not what it seemed on its shimmering, sun-bathed surface.

The following year the newlyweds were in Ann Arbor, with Kenneth enrolled at the University of Michigan, studying for a PhD in English literature. He aspired to an academic career, but fate intervened to decide otherwise. Margaret became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Linda. Money now became a problem. So, too, did parenting; neither mother nor father was prepared for the responsibility of raising a child. Millar’s biographer Tom Nolan, who also edited this collection, describes the result: “He wanted sex more often. She was cold and remote for long periods. He shouted, pounded walls, broke things. With their child as witness, the Millars formed a twisted hybrid of the fractured families that had produced the two of them.” The onset of World War II, which found Millar serving a tour in the Pacific as an ensign aboard an escort carrier, came almost as a respite.

During her husband’s absence, Margaret headed west with Linda in tow. She was becoming something of a literary hot property, making her mark with a series of whodunits. Recruited by Warner Brothers to rework her critical breakthrough, The Iron Gates, into a screenplay, she used her earnings to buy a house in Santa Barbara. Here Kenneth returned when the war ended.

While overseas, Kenneth had begun to publish short fiction, and now, on his wife’s dime, he made a stab at becoming a full-time writer. By 1949, Lew Archer—who would eventually feature in eighteen novels along with fourteen short stories—had made his appearance. So, too, had Ross Macdonald, the pseudonym Millar settled on after discarding other short-lived alternatives. (Two writers named Millar pumping out mysteries might be one too many. The use of a pen name avoided confusion.)

By the 1950s, both Millars were making a splash on the Southern California literary scene, and Kenneth shelved any idea of a life in academe. Even so, family life continued to be a source of tribulation. The Millar marriage remained stormy and sometimes violent. Linda was beset with troubles that worsened in her teens. In 1956, while driving drunk, she killed a thirteen-year-old boy in a hit-and-run accident. Arraigned on two felony counts, she suffered a breakdown, was hospitalized, and was subsequently convicted of manslaughter. The sentence was a lengthy probation, but she soon violated its terms and landed back in a state mental institution. By this time, having attempted suicide at least once, Kenneth himself was seeing a psychiatrist. Life in Santa Barbara was not what it seemed on its shimmering, sun-bathed surface.

Just Another Fruit Fly

For its first anthology drawn from the Macdonald oeuvre, the Library of America has repackaged four Lew Archer tales written during this period of Millar’s life: The Way Some People Die (1951); The Barbarous Coast (1956); The Doomsters (1958); and The Galton Case (1959). All are set in California, and all adhere to an identifiable formula. All revolve around Archer’s efforts to find a missing person. No sooner does the detective initiate his inquiries than he bumps into several other seemingly unrelated mysteries. Over the course of thirty-or-so compact chapters, while enduring or committing a certain amount of mayhem, Archer discovers that everything connects: rather than several parallel mysteries, there is but one. Crucially, that one mystery has its point of origin in parental failure and the ruinous consequences of depriving children of the care and protection they deserve.

Archer himself remains an elusive figure, with only sketchy biographical details emerging from the first-person narrative. We learn that he grew up in Oakland, where he clashed with a violent father and got into his fair share of trouble. “I’d been a street boy in my time, gang-fighter, thief, pool-room lawyer,” he recalls in a rare moment of reflection. “It was a fact that I didn’t like to remember.” During the war, Archer served as an intelligence officer. He was once a cop in Long Beach, but quit or was fired because he couldn’t stomach the rampant corruption. Now he lives alone in a five-room bungalow located somewhere between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles. “The house and the mortgage on it were mementos of my one and only marriage,” a failure that still gnaws.

Archer not only lives alone but works alone—no sidekick, no partner, no gal Friday tending his rarely visited office. He is discreet, unflappable, and plenty tough when it comes to absorbing or meting out punishment. Here he is in a whorehouse dealing with a blackjack-wielding bouncer: “I hit him with a left to the head, a right cross to the jaw, a long left hook to the solar plexus which bent him over into my right coming up.” Biff bam pow, that was that. “He subsided.”

In 1950s California as depicted by Macdonald, you arrive in search of utopia and stay to forfeit your soul.

What motivates Archer to play the role of knight-errant remains similarly obscure. Being a private eye pays the bills, of course. “I don’t do it for the money, though,” he explains at one point. “I do it because I want to.” A troubled young woman he’s been looking for, who happens at the moment to be pointing a gun at his midsection, asks Archer why he bothers. “I like to pretend I’m God,” he replies sardonically. “But I don’t really fool myself. . . . Personally, I’m just another fruit fly. If I don’t care what happens to fruit flies, what is there to care about? And if I don’t care, who will?”

The fruit flies he cares most about come from broken families. Archer the loner is also in his way a family man. In a world filled with cruelty but devoid of transcendence, he persists in believing that the family offers—or at least should offer—protection and comfort to those most in need of both. Family is an anchor; without it, you’re adrift.

An Empty State

And Archer’s postwar California is a particularly dangerous place to be without an anchor. God is long since dead, and the big shoes he left behind remain ominously empty. Modernity has rendered faith obsolete without providing an adequate substitute. Madness, addiction, alienation, nihilistic violence, and general sleaziness fill the resulting void. To each of these, the young are particularly vulnerable.

This California is also curiously empty. There are few crowds. Archer’s cases take him not toward the city but away from it, to outlying suburbs and small towns that have names but possess little by way of a distinctive history or character. For the most part, life in these charmless places is lived behind closed doors, where lonely people harboring secrets and nursing disappointments keep the blinds drawn, with pills and liquor bottles close at hand. Lowlifes and plotters abound, but their ambitions are petty and their schemes crude.

Archer surveys the wreckage without even pretending to offer a remedy. “What do you want?” he asks one doper.

“Kicks. Money and kicks. What else is there?”

“A hell of a lot,” Archer replies.

The cryptic response begs for further elaboration. Yet Archer offers none. Instead, he breaks off the exchange, with the implication that a hell of a lot is not much at all.

So Lew Archer’s California is not Walt Disney’s or Ozzie and Harriet’s. Arguably the best and certainly the most readable history of that state is Kevin Starr’s multivolume epic. Starr called his narrative of the 1950s Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950–1963 (2011). But 1950s California as depicted by Ross Macdonald is not golden, and its abundance is an illusion or a trap. You arrive in search of utopia and stay to forfeit your soul.

Tracking down a lead, Archer calls on a writer friend reduced to doing well-paid hackwork (as Margaret Millar had) for a movie studio. “Did I ever tell you I was a genius?” the friend asks. “I had an I.Q. of 183 when I was in high school in Galena, Illinois. What ever happened to me? . . . I used to have talent. I didn’t know what it was worth. I came out here for the kicks, going along with the gag. . . . Then it turns out that it isn’t a gag.” Hang on long enough “and . . . you’re not inner-directed anymore. You’re not yourself.”

For the lucky ones, the best chance of salvation is to get out and go back where they came from. On his best days, Archer serves as their facilitator. A woman learns that the man she left her husband for is a cheap crook. “I want to go back to Toledo, where people are nice,” she tells Archer. Back on the shores of Lake Erie, she had felt the allure of Southern California, “but now that I’ve seen it, it’s a hellish place,” she says. “I’ve fallen among thieves, that’s what I’ve done. . . . I want to go back to George.” The prospect of her doing so pleases the detective. “It seemed very important to me that George should get together with his wife and take her away from Los Angeles,” he reflects. “And live happily ever after.”

That last sentence reminds us that, in the tradition forged by Hammett and Chandler, a shamus keeps his heart of gold encased within a hard shell of cynicism. For Archer, successfully wrapping up a case does not trigger any guarantee of happiness. He settles for giving clients, deserving and undeserving alike, a second shot at caring for those they ought to care about. Beyond that, they’re on their own.

In an uncharacteristic what’s-it-all-about rumination, Archer concludes that the real challenge of human existence is “to love people, [and] try to serve them, without wanting anything from them.” The point of his investigations is not to produce a definitive outcome; whether George’s wife will actually find Toledo more agreeable this time than last lies beyond his purview. Nor is Archer all that much interested in seeing justice done. His aim is simultaneously more modest and more ambitious: to undo past errors and thereby create the possibility of second chances.

When he first takes up his trade, Archer is very much the ex-cop cracking wise in the best Philip Marlowe vein. But with the passing of time, he becomes something more akin to a father confessor—a listener who withholds judgment. He recalls having once entertained the view that there are “good people and bad people, and everything would be hunky-dory if the good people locked up the bad ones or wiped them out with small personalized nuclear weapons.” Over the course of these several novels, he abandons that black-and-white view for “one that include[s] a few of the finer shades.”

In effect, Archer eventually embraces a doctrine of original sin, carefully shorn of all religious connotations. Men and women across the board are “the secret authors of their own destruction,” he concludes. “The current of guilt flowed in a closed circuit if you traced it far enough.” Just as no one could claim innocence, no one could be singled out as uniquely culpable. “We were all guilty,” Archer observes, and the guilt is inescapable. “We had to learn to live with it.”

Learning to live with guilt and with his own failings, real or imagined, as child, husband, and parent, was Kenneth Millar’s calling. Ross Macdonald served as his intermediary and Lew Archer—“I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me”—his alter ego. In an essay written toward the end of his life, Millar observed that “a man’s fiction . . . is very much the record of his particular life.” Over time, the writing itself may “become a substitute for the life, a shadow of the life clinging to the original so closely that . . . it becomes hard to tell which is fiction and which is confession.”

As both storyteller and stylist, Millar possessed formidable talent. Yes, the plots are predictable and their resolution too tidy. And, yes, the occasional infelicity—“Jets snored like flies in the sky”—creeps in. Yet if postwar California, with all of its glitter and perversity, offered a preview of where America was heading, Millar was its master interpreter. In his misery, he beheld our future—ample reason to affirm his place in the American canon, if not in the first rank, then at least in the respectable middle.