cover image Ross MacDonald: A Biography

Ross MacDonald: A Biography

Tom Nolan. Scribner Book Company, $40 (496pp) ISBN 978-0-684-81217-5

All aficionados of the mystery genre know the work of Ross Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar), whom Nolan calls the ""philosopher king of detective novelists,"" the author of 18 Lew Archer novels and heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Now, this first full biography reveals, deeply and affectionately, the man behind the fiction. Millar started writing thrillers for the money but wound up irrevocably changing the detective novel, making it both more socially conscious and psychologically probing and bringing mysteries onto the bestseller list along the way. Nolan's elegant, moving account neither sensationalizes nor glosses over the unpleasant events of Millar's life: his sexual experiences at a very young age; his daughter's brief, troubled life; his heartbreaking decline and death from Alzheimer's disease. As a youth, Millar used books to escape his hardscrabble Canadian youth and his emotionally disturbed mother (who almost abandoned him to an orphanage). Some of his early favorites were Dickens's Oliver Twist and the novels of Dashiell Hammett, whom he felt ""told the truth about how the world worked."" As an adult, perhaps because he had looked for mentors to replace his own absent father, Millar was ""surrogate father to probably hundreds of people."" Many, like singer-songwriter Warren Zevon (who struggled with liquor and drugs) worshipped him. Zevon tells of the day he ""went to the door, and there was Lew Archer, come to save my life."" Millar's relationship with his wife of 46 years, Margaret Millar (herself a bestselling mystery writer) was more complex: they were at once competitive and supportive of each other's work. Perhaps the best description of this biography--with its loves and betrayals, professional successes and personal tragedies--is that it reads like a Ross Macdonald novel, which is high praise, indeed. (Mar.)