Tom Nolan is the editor of The Library of America’s new title Ross Macdonald: Four Novels of the 1950s. Here, in the first of three exclusive posts about Macdonald’s life and work, he explores the relationships among the “Holy Trinity” of the hardboiled detective novel—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Macdonald—and the complicated dynamics of literary succession.
Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald.
That triple-play combo, first suggested by critic Anthony Boucher in the 1950s, had become common parlance by the mid-’70s. It suggests a “Holy Trinity” of literary succession, with Dashiell Hammett as the chief originator of the hardboiled detective novel, Raymond Chandler as the genre’s romantic popularizer, and Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) realizing its moral, psychological, and lyrical fulfillment.
Millar/Macdonald had been greatly influenced as an artist by those two illustrious forebears—one of whom would remain a lifelong inspiration, and the other a writer the mere mention of whose name might throw Millar into a rage.
Hammett made his mark on the future Ross Macdonald circa 1931, when Kenneth Millar was an angry but ambitious teenager in Kitchener, Ontario, who spent half his free time in the public library reading everything from Heraclitus to H. L. Mencken to Agatha Christie, and the other half in McCallum’s Barber Shop, Tobacco Store, and Pool Hall. McCallum’s had a rental library, and it was there that Ken Millar found and read, in a single afternoon, a Hammett novel, probably The Glass Key. It was unlike any book (let alone “mystery”) that he’d come across in the town’s official library.
“I lived in a very self-righteous city when I was going to high school,” Millar told interviewer William Gottlieb in 1973, “a self-righteous city where the slot machine racket was roaring and drawing in thousands of dollars, and corrupting the police force. . . . And this was never mentioned. I didn’t know that it could be mentioned in fiction until . . . I started to read Dashiell Hammett.”
Late in life, Macdonald recalled the electrifying effect that Hammett novel had on him in the tobacco-store rental-library: “Like iron filings magnetized by the book in my hands, the secret meanings of the city began to organize themselves around me. . . . For the first time . . . I was consciously experiencing in my own sensibility the direct meeting of art and contemporary actuality.” Here was the sort of fiction Ken Millar someday hoped to write.
Life intervened. Millar went to college, graduated, married, became a father, a high-school teacher, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan before he came upon his next great crime-fiction influence: Raymond Chandler, who had taken Hammett’s hard-boiled model and (much as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had done with the ratiocinative detective story invented by Edgar Allan Poe) adapted it to his own vivid purposes in books that set the style for a new generation.
Millar was liberated by Chandler’s vivacious prose style, which seemed leagues livelier than anything else in American letters. Chandler “wrote like a slumming angel,” Macdonald would testify, “and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”
In his first Lew Archer novel, The Moving Target (1949), Macdonald made free use of the traditions he’d inherited. As in the debut Philip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep (1939), the rich client is paralyzed; but in Target, it’s a youngish she and not an aged he, and she isn’t dying and charming but full of a cynical life-force. Archer cracks wise, in the Hammett-Chandler mode, but his patter often sounds more like Stephen Leacock or Robert Benchley than Spade or Marlowe. Macdonald from the start was appropriating the p.i. foundation to build something of his own.
But Raymond Chandler didn’t like what he read when critic James Sandoe (a crucial early Chandler booster) brought The Moving Target to his attention. He was already miffed at the many imitators he’d engendered in the past decade, and Macdonald became a special target. Chandler went out of his way to disparage Lew Archer’s creator in letters to Sandoe, to fellow writer James T. Fox, and to an influential Chicago bookseller. The mystery community in the 1950s was a tight-knit group, so it’s likely Millar knew about the old master’s mean-spirited missives. Once the posthumous Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962) was published, with its inclusion of Chandler’s 1949 letter to Sandoe knocking Macdonald’s prose (“The simile that does not quite come off . . . pretentiousness in the phrasing . . . stylistic misuse of language . . . a lack of some kind of natural animal emotion”), the whole world could read all about it.
“Chandler tried to kill me”: that was Millar’s melodramatic description of the older man’s behavior towards him at the outset of his career.
Even while Chandler was grumbling about Macdonald, Pocket Books—Macdonald’s (and Chandler’s) paperback publisher at the time—complained that Macdonald was wandering too far from established hard-boiled templates, and went as far as to suggest to Alfred Knopf that someone should rewrite Millar’s texts to make them more like Chandler’s.
The situation came to a head in Millar’s extraordinary 1952 letter to Knopf in which he declared his independence from Chandler’s near-Manichean morality and outlined his own map for future work: “I can’t accept Chandler’s vision of good and evil. It is conventional to the point of occasional old-maidishness, anti-human to the point of frequent sadism . . . and the mind behind it, for all its enviable imaginative force, is uncultivated and second-rate. . . . [I]t would be simple self-stultification for me to take him as the last word in the mystery.”
While distancing himself from Raymond Chandler, though, Macdonald continued to learn from and admire Dashiell Hammett, developing certain Hammett-like devices in distinctive ways.
As an ex-Pinkerton detective, Hammett was hyper-alert to people’s physical behavior: a professional investigator is always looking for “the tell”—the furtive glance, the twitch of the lip, the hesitation that indicates truth or falsehood. Hammett specialized in describing people under stress, and Macdonald brought this physiological scrutiny to a near-poetic level in his career-long use of “psychological clues.”
Another Hammett technique Macdonald put to his own good use was the deadpan description of the contents of a given person’s wallet, luggage, or furnishings. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade notes several things found on Joel Cairo’s person: they reveal not only the would-be-client’s recent activities but the elements of a pocket biography. Compare that collage trouvé with what Lew Archer discerns in the personal effects at Lance Leonard’s house in The Barbarous Coast, the poignant souvenirs of Keith Dalling’s existence in The Way Some People Die, the shopworn possessions of the seedy Pat Reavis in The Drowning Pool—each assemblage tracing the trajectory of an entire life.
James M. Cain was another hard-boiled writer admired by Millar. At his peak, he thought, Cain set the most brisk narrative pace he’d ever seen. But Macdonald of course loved and learned from the work of American non-genre authors as well. Two of his favorites were F. Scott Fitzgerald—plot aspects of The Great Gatsby can be found in Macdonald’s The Galton Case and Black Money—and William Faulkner, whose structural technique much impressed Macdonald (he said of Faulkner’s keeping Popeye’s story until the very end of Sanctuary: “That’s control”), and whose gothic-realist streak (exemplified in the final sentence of his chilling story “A Rose for Emily”) had a strong influence on Macdonald’s own: note the almost as startling last-sentence revelation of The Chill.
Millar remained a devoted reader all his life and in latter years wrote generous jacket blurbs for a number of novice authors, including Roger Simon, Michael Z. Lewin, Michael Collins, Leonard Gardner, Dick Francis, William McIlvanney, and George V. Higgins. He also unofficially edited several nonfiction and fiction works by friends and acquaintances and mentored many apprentice and beginning writers. “He did tremendous favors,” said his friend Jerre Lloyd. “And there wasn’t anything selfish in it; he kept quiet about it. But I can’t emphasize too much the amount of good that he did. I think the reason was that he’d been so badly treated himself by Raymond Chandler. . . . [H]e thought Chandler had been gratuitously negative, and he was anxious not to do that to anyone else.”