When future crime novelist Ross Macdonald was not yet six years old, his father abandoned him and his mother, leaving them penniless in a Vancouver waterfront boarding house. His first memories of his father, he later told actor Robert Easton, were connected to the sea.
The boy—whose real name was Kenneth Millar—was born in 1915 in Los Gatos, California, moving to Vancouver a year later. His father, who had earned his captain’s papers during the First World War, owned a tugboat and flew planes out of Vancouver harbour. The happy childhood Millar found in Vancouver was short-lived. Left alone, he was forced to beg for money and food on the streets. This hardscrabble Canadian childhood would shape the quintessential California writer’s fiction for the rest of his life.
Few writers did more to define American mystery fiction than Ross Macdonald. The most prominent heir to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald infused the genre with moral complexity, intergenerational trauma, and both a concern for and fear of the natural world. His 18 novels featuring private detective Lew Archer, among them The Chill, The Galton Case, and The Underground Man, were described by the New York Times Book Review as “the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.”
Millar spent the remainder of his childhood foisted from one relative to another, moving from Vancouver to Winnipeg to Kitchener, never escaping poverty. “A lot of bad things happened to me in Canada,” he recounted to music critic Paul Nelson. He estimated he had lived in 50 different buildings by the time he turned 16.
In Ontario, Millar attended high school, where he first met Margaret Sturm, the woman who would become his wife and, as Margaret Millar, an important mystery writer in her own right. He earned a degree in English and history from Western University, then a doctorate from the University of Michigan. Margaret encouraged him to abandon academia for a writing career; her own early success supported the family during and after his naval service, allowing them to settle in Santa Barbara with their daughter, Linda. Millar began writing crime fiction, at first standalone novels under his own name. He eventually adopted the pen name John Macdonald, later changing it to Ross Macdonald to avoid confusion with another author.
In 1949 Macdonald published The Moving Target, the first novel featuring private detective Lew Archer. At first imitating the wisecracking, cynical voice of Raymond Chandler, Macdonald soon felt ambivalent about Chandler’s influence. In a letter to his publisher, he wrote, “Chandler’s subject is the evilness of evil,” a simplistic vision Macdonald couldn’t accept. “My subject is human error… I would rather understand [people] than condemn them.”
By the late 1950s, Macdonald had transcended his hard-boiled influences by delving into his own family history and obsessions. Missing parents and lost children feature heavily in The Galton Case (1959), The Chill (1964), and The Underground Man (1971). In a book on Macdonald’s literary world, Peter Wolfe wrote that “the separation from his father and Millar’s subsequent search for identity, for continuity in a disjointed existence, marked his fiction as well as his life. Many of the fictional characters of his mature work are absorbed in such a quest.” As Macdonald himself put it in a letter to Wolfe, “My half-suppressed Canadian years, my whole childhood and youth, rose like a corpse from the bottom of the sea to confront me.”
Macdonald’s obsession with the sea and swimming began in Vancouver and continued throughout his life. He related to Paul Nelson an early memory of swimming off Stanley Park: “I was playing in the water at English Bay outside of Vancouver with a black lifeguard. That’s the first memory of the city I have—all good… I remembered it so well that when I went back there I could walk right to the place.” The lifeguard was likely Joe Fortes, called “Vancouver Citizen of the Century,” who saved at least 29 people from drowning and whose name still graces a restaurant and public library in the city.
The writer and his wife were naturalists, birders, and environmental activists. After a deadly oil spill in 1969, Macdonald cut his Union Oil credit card in half and sent it to the company president. His novel Sleeping Beauty (1973) takes place during the aftermath of a similar oil spill, employing the disaster as a symbol of corruption.
These later, more autobiographically charged novels brought Macdonald mainstream success and appreciation from the likes of novelist Eudora Welty, who became a lifelong friend, and screenwriter William Goldman, who was hired to adapt The Moving Target into the film Harper (1966), starring Paul Newman. A box-office hit, Harper launched Goldman’s screenwriting career, which would include Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. Another adaptation, this one of The Drowning Pool (1950), also starring Newman, was released in 1975. As recently as January 2023, the Coen brothers have been rumoured to be working on an adaptation of The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962).
Macdonald’s later years were threaded with sorrow: his daughter died in 1970 at 31, after a tumultuous life. Macdonald himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Margaret Millar wrote that a few weeks before he died, her husband returned from a swim and called her by her name: “This was the first time in six months he had recognized me.” Macdonald died in 1983 at 68.
California crime fiction, defined by its clashes between urban sprawl and natural beauty, desperation and glamour, frontier justice and mercy, owes much to Macdonald’s formulation. Yet Macdonald considered himself “both literally and imaginatively a biped, resting one uneasy foot in California… and the other in Canada.” His early experiences in Vancouver provided material he’d rework obsessively throughout his life. Macdonald called his writing process “an attempt to make something personal out of a particular genre.” The son of a Vancouver harbour pilot would draw on his Canadian experiences to redefine California crime fiction, securing his place in American letters.
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