Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries By Ross Macdonald

edited by Tom Nolan

Published by Crippen & Landru

164 pages, 2001

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Out of the Past

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Stupid male pride apparently convinced Kenneth Millar -- who would one day earn international renown as the pseudonymous detective novelist "Ross Macdonald" -- to try his hand at short-story writing. While stationed on board an aircraft carrier during World War II, the ambitious Millar grew uncomfortable with the fact that his wife, mystery writer Margaret Millar, had already published five books and recently been hired to turn one of her tales into a movie, while he was stuck out in the South Pacific with only one novel to his credit, a spy thriller called The Dark Tunnel (1944). So, when he learned in 1945 that the popular Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine was sponsoring a short-story competition that promised thousands of dollars in prize money, Millar decided to enter. He didn't think much of his chances ("I just don't seem to be able to put out in a short detective story," he lamented in a letter home), yet wound up winning fourth prize with a first-person, Hollywood-oriented private-eye yarn, "Find the Woman."

The rest was, well, not history. Or, at least it was not easy for the author. Yes, over the next four decades (until his death in 1983) Millar/Macdonald made his literary mark with 18 books featuring a somewhat damaged and fully compassionate Los Angeles P.I. named Lew Archer. But Archer's first case -- in The Moving Target (1949) -- was initially rejected by publisher Alfred A. Knopf as "fair-to-middling run-of-the-mill stuff" (Knopf only accepted it after Millar threatened to take the work elsewhere). And, though a collection of his abbreviated crime tales, The Name is Archer, became an unexpected hit when it saw print in 1955, Macdonald was never as comfortable with that abbreviated form as with the complexity and pacing of full-length novels. He only ever published about a dozen short stories during his career, primarily in mystery or men's magazines. It was not uncommon for him to start out penning a novella, only to set it aside as the nugget from which a future Archer book might grow.

That very fate befell two of the three stories comprising Strangers in Town -- the first offering of "new" Ross Macdonald fiction since his final novel, The Blue Hammer, reached bookstores in 1976. The author composed the initial tale here, "Death by Water," immediately after writing his EQMM contest entry, "Find the Woman" (originally titled "Death by Air"), but set it aside because he thought their two plots were too similar. Not until the 1990s, when Southern California books critic Tom Nolan was gathering material for his extraordinary study, Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999), were these tales unearthed from what Nolan describes as "dozens of cartons [of paper] at Millar/Macdonald's archive in the Special Collections library at the University of California, Irvine."

Now, in general, I am appalled by editors who think it is somehow their right to resurrect and posthumously publish whole works or sections of books that an author chose, for one reason or another, to keep out of print. As if they know better than the author did -- ha! Mark Twain must still be spinning in his grave over the "new" 1996 edition of his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which included episodes and variations on the story that Twain had long ago excised. And Ernest Hemingway's reputation has hardly been boosted by publication over the last decade of what seems a ceaseless trickle of comparatively pale cast-offs, such as True at First Light (1999). This need to plow the literary scrap heap is a result of publishers' greed more than readers' need, and might be stemmed only by authors deliberately destroying their unpublished words before they become legacies to a later generation.

But Nolan assures us in his lengthy and valuable introduction to Strangers in Town that Macdonald didn't sock these three yarns away because he was ashamed of them. "All are arguably as good as Macdonald's published novelettes," Nolan opines, adding that the author's "reasons for not wanting these stories printed were professional, not aesthetic": He simply thought their resemblance to other of his works made them superfluous.

Today, though, the Strangers tales are interesting as markers along Macdonald's literary evolution. In "Death by Water," which features an Archer precursor, L.A. sleuth Joe Rogers, investigating the drowning of an aged hotel guest, Macdonald is obviously still trying detective fiction on for size. The story's dialogue is frequently stilted ("By Jove, I forgot about that"), and the author shows greater facility for character development than he does talent in concocting his plot, which is pretty thin and has since become a TV cliché.

More polished is this collection's title story. "Strangers in Town" (1950), which Macdonald later cannibalized for his 1952 novel, The Ivory Grin, finds Archer himself trying to clear a black college student of murdering his mother's boarder -- a task complicated by the victim's involvement with gangsters. It's not a perfect tale. Macdonald, like Raymond Chandler and other white crime novelists before him, wrote about L.A.'s black community out of limited experience with it, and at that time he still didn't understand (though he would later) that crime fiction can be powerful even without regular expositions of violence. Yet from the opening sentence, Macdonald shows how much he's matured as a writer in just half a decade:

"My son is in grave trouble," the woman said.

I asked her to sit down, and after a moment's hesitation she lowered her weight into the chair I placed for her. She was a large Negro woman, clothed rather tightly in a blue linen dress which she had begun to outgrow. Her bosom was rising and falling with excitement, or from the effort of climbing the flight of stairs to my office. She looked no older than forty, but the hair that showed under her blue straw hat was the color of steel wool. Perspiration furred her upper lip.

"About your son?" I sat down behind my desk, the possible kinds of trouble that a Negro boy could get into in Los Angeles running like a newsreel through my head.

"My son has been arrested on suspicion of murder." She spoke with a schoolteacher's precision. "The police have had him up all night, questioning him, trying to force a confession out of him."

"Where is he held? Lincoln Heights?"

"In Santa Teresa. We live there. I just came down on the bus to see if you could help me. There are no private detectives in Santa Teresa."

"He have a lawyer?"

"Mr. Santana. He recommended you to me, Mr. Archer."

"I see." Santana I knew by name and reputation as a leader of minority groups in Southern California. He had come up the long hard way, and remembered every step. "Well, what are the facts?"

"Before I go over them in detail, I would like to be assured that you'll take the case."

"I'd like to be assured that your son isn't guilty."

Finally, in "The Angry Man," written during the mid-1950s, Archer sets out to find an escaped mental patient who attacked him in his office and is the main suspect in his brother's slaying. A fast-moving psychological drama, this yarn helped inspire The Doomsters (1958), the first of Macdonald's many novels built around the saga of a troubled family. You see the author here refining his character types, from the caring psychiatric social worker with his "sagging furniture and [office full of] outdated magazines" to the flirtatious, idle-rich sister-in-law ("Where is your husband?" I said when she put down the phone." "Somewhere around the place. He putters. Do all men putter, Mr. Archer? Do you putter?"). Although the ending seems a bit rushed, it does include a nice twist that alters your perspective on the entire story.

While there may be nothing in Strangers in Town to make you think differently about Lew Archer's creator, no stories here to rival the best that Ross Macdonald offered during his lifetime, this volume remains a revelation -- especially for those of us who thought, smugly, that we'd already read the author's entire oeuvre. We were obviously clueless. | March 2001


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.