Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries By Ross Macdonald
edited by Tom Nolan
Published by Crippen & Landru
164 pages, 2001
Buy it online
As a first-time biographer, I was lucky. My subject -- the seminal Southern California crime novelist Ross Macdonald (real name, Kenneth Millar), author of the Lew Archer books, which The New York Times Book Review dubbed "the finest series of detective novels every written by an American" -- apparently saved every document with writing on it that passed through his hands.
When I began in 1990 to retrace his life (1915-1983), I found an extraordinary paper trail to follow, housed in dozens of cartons at Millar/Macdonald's archive in the Special Collections library at the University of California, Irvine.
The trail began up in Canada, in Kenneth Millar's prehistory, where his father, John Macdonald Millar, published and edited newspapers in frontier mining and logging towns during the early 1900s. Preserved through the decades were messages and poems written by "Jack" Millar to his fiancée and later wife, Annie, including postcards of sketches by Canadian artist John Innes that pictured Jack Millar helping guide Innes' pack train through the western provinces in 1899.
The UC Irvine archive yielded items from Kenneth Millar's childhood and teenage and college years in Ontario, as well as from his grad school days at the University of Michigan. There were hundreds of letters he and his wife, Margaret Millar, had exchanged during World War II, back when Ken, his first book (The Dark Tunnel, 1944) just published, served as a U.S. Naval reserve officer in the Pacific, while Margaret (also a crime fiction author) worked alongside William Faulkner and Christopher Isherwood as a screenwriter at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California.
The archive also contained a wealth of manuscript material -- from Kenneth Millar's earliest professional work (1930s pieces handwritten by Ken, and typed by Margaret, for the Toronto weekly Saturday Night) to Ross Macdonald's final efforts at fiction (fragments of a projected last Lew Archer book). There were dozens of plot notebooks in that archive, in which Millar/Macdonald had done outlines and sample chapters of Lew Archer novels -- a couple dozen of which he wrote, an equal number of which he didn't.
To my astonishment and delight, among all of this, I found three completed but unpublished Millar/Macdonald private eye short stories: one, from 1945, in which Lt. (j.g.) Kenneth Millar took a confident step toward creating a character to succeed Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe; and two from the 1950s, featuring Lew Archer, the Southern California P.I. whose voice narrated nearly all of Ross Macdonald's fiction.
These three stories, I thought, were real finds: works that would be of great interest to Macdonald readers. They deserved to be published. And now they have been, gathered by Crippen & Landru into a book, Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross Macdonald, with my introduction and prefaces.
All of these early yarns were written for a mystery-magazine market and are not reflective of the style and vision of Ross Macdonald's later novels. But they are on a par with Macdonald's previously published novelettes collected in The Name is Archer, a 1955 anthology much admired by fans of the hard-boiled P.I. short story.
The first tale in The Name is Archer is "Find the Woman," which was written the same week in 1945 as "Death by Water," the initial entry in Strangers in Town. Like "Find the Woman" (the original title of which was "Death by Air"), "Death by Water" features a Southern California detective-narrator named Joe Rogers (changed to Lew Archer when "Find the Woman" was included in The Name is Archer).
Millar wrote both of these Rogers stories aboard the USS Shipley Bay, as entries for the first Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine short story contest. The author felt the stories' murder methods too similar for both tales to be published. So when "Find the Woman" won a prize, he filed "Death by Water" with other discarded efforts -- to be found 50 years later by his biographer.
"Strangers in Town," the title tale in the new Crippen & Landru book, was also meant as an EQMM contest entry, in 1950. It was the first short story written with Lew Archer, who by then had already figured in three novels. But "John Ross Macdonald" (an earlier version of Millar's pseudonym) saw this novelette's potential as a full-length book and withdrew it from submission. "Strangers in Town" (much altered) would provide the framework for the fourth Archer novel, 1952's The Ivory Grin.
Strangers in Town's final story, "The Angry Man," is another Lew Archer novelette, perhaps intended for sale to Manhunt, a crime fiction magazine which bought several Archer tales in 1953 and 1954. Again, the author saw novelistic potential and chose not to sell his short story. Later, Macdonald built the 1958 Lew Archer novel The Doomsters on the foundation of "The Angry Man."
Some of the appeal of these three "new" Macdonald stories, I think, lies in their period immediacy. These are not after-the-fact attempts to re-create an earlier style or era. They're alive with the feel of the times they were written in -- the first, when Ken Millar was about to leave both Navy and grad school for life in Southern California as a full-time fiction writer; the second and third, when Macdonald was earning his way as the critics' favorite among a crop of postwar Chandler successors.
Of special interest, too, are the glimpses these stories give of the works Macdonald would later write. The victim's widow in the 1945 Rogers story "Death by Water," a woman confined to a wheelchair, prefigures the wheelchair-dependent wife who hires Lew Archer four years later in the debut Archer novel, The Moving Target. And it's fascinating to compare the change in Macdonald's moral worldview from "The Angry Man" to the book later written from it, The Doomsters. "The Angry Man" was penned in the wake of the author's having accompanied a psychiatric social worker on an extensive 1954 tour of California medical and criminal facilities, in search of subject matter for his Archer fiction. (Macdonald dedicated the 1956 novel, The Barbarous Coast, to this same social worker.) The Doomsters was completed after real-life events, in 1956, brought the sort of sorrow Macdonald was writing about into Millar's own home -- changing Millar, Macdonald and Archer forever. | March 2001
Tom Nolan's Macavity Award-winning Ross Macdonald: A Biography is available in trade paperback from Poisoned Pen Press.