“It’s All One Case” is a book that any devotee of American detective fiction would kill for. For fans of Ross Macdonald, the finest American detective novelist of the 1950s and ’60s, it’s an absolute essential.
First off, this huge album contains the transcript of 47 hours of talk between Kenneth Millar — Macdonald’s real name — and Rolling Stone reporter Paul Nelson. The conversations, which took place in 1976, were intended for an article that never got written. Soon after the interviews were over, Millar began to exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and would never write another book. He died in 1983. Nelson’s life would gradually just fall apart. He died in 2006.
Largely because of Kevin Avery’s devotion and hard work this major work of mystery scholarship has finally appeared in print.
Yet there’s still another reason to covet this book — its pictures, hundreds of them. Virtually every page shows off Jeff Wong’s awe-inspiring collection of material relating to Millar.
Here one can see every Ross Macdonald novel in every hardcover and paperback edition and seemingly all the periodicals — from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine to Cosmopolitan and Gallery — in which Millar published a story or article; reproductions of the writer’s handwritten letters, spiral notebooks and typed manuscripts; pages from Knopf galleys; and even VHS tapes and DVDs of the movies and TV series based on private eye Lew Archer.
In addition, “It’s All One Case” includes dozens of photographs of Millar, as a boy in Canada, at his longtime home in Santa Barbara, and with his wife, the comparably gifted mystery writer Margaret Millar (whose works Soho Press has recently reissued in several omnibus volumes).
Nearly all Lew Archer’s cases — “The Zebra-Striped Hearse ,” “The Chill ” and a half dozen others — deal, more or less, with the sins of an earlier generation wreaking havoc in the present. In the interviews here, Millar admits that he consciously worked and reworked variations on this theme because of its personal relevance: His father walked out on his mother when he wasn’t quite 4, and little Ken grew up being shunted among various relatives, so much so that he had lived in 50 different houses or apartments by the time he was 16.
At an early age, Millar decided to become a writer. He tells Nelson that important influences included Poe and Twain but that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was, for him, “the central novel of the century.” He reveres Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and deeply admires the early work of James M. Cain: “Nothing has ever been done in its field better than ‘Double Indemnity.’ ” Among favorite contemporary writers, Millar names Nabokov, “who doesn’t really make mistakes.” He regards Dostoevsky “as probably the greatest of all fiction writers.”
To write his detective novels, Millar says he spends months scribbling plot details in notebooks and that he deliberately uses symbolic imagery as a structural element. His books are, consequently, both complicated and precisely engineered: “I don’t aim at simplicity.” He also stresses that it’s “the stories of the other people” — Archer’s clients rather than the detective himself — “that really interest me more. Archer is just a means of getting to them and showing them as they are.” Indeed, some of his books, he would argue, “are tragedy or at least aim at it.”
Nonetheless, Millar explains, “I don’t start out with a character. I start out with an idea, which is generally a moral situation. . . . The characters are just notations which together form the book. They do represent energies of course, various kinds of imaginative energy going in different directions, and all that has to be orchestrated and unified. That’s what really is so difficult: to get it all in a proper balance so that each of these energies represented by the twenty or so characters in a book gets its proper place, its proper presentation, and its final place in the structure.” He emphasizes that structure is “the one thing I can do better than my competition, so I spend a lot of time on it.”
Clearly Millar, who earned a Ph.D in English from the University of Michigan, isn’t your average pulp mystery hack. Instead his books honor the hard-boiled tradition, even as they complicate and slightly soften it. These days, however, I suspect that Millar’s novels —despite being reprinted in the Library of America — have fallen into literary limbo, remembered but not much read. Yet his mysteries still pack a wallop, as I discovered when, after many years, I again picked up my copy of “The Galton Case.” From the start, Archer’s voice exhibits the laconic factuality and low-keyed wit we associate with Hammett and Raymond Chandler:
“The law offices of Wellesley and Sable were over a savings bank on the main street of Santa Teresa. Their private elevator lifted you from a bare little lobby into an atmosphere of elegant simplicity. It created the impression that after years of struggle you were rising effortlessly to your natural level, one of the chosen.”
As Millar talks about his life and work in “It’s All One Case,” he does repeat some of the same points again and again. Nonetheless, he absolutely refuses to discuss his daughter Linda, who accidentally killed a young boy when driving drunk at the age of 16 and later died at 31. While Millar admits that his fiction is replete with troubled adolescents, he contends that any personal or autobiographical material has been sublimated, shaped and refracted. He is an artist, after all, and that’s what artists do.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.