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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Enduring Attraction of Ross Macdonald Is All About the Mystery

This week marks a milestone for the Santa Barbara literary community. On Dec. 13, mystery author Ross Macdonald (1915-1983) would have been 100 years old.

Just who was he, what was his connection to Santa Barbara and why is his name still important?

Macdonald, often mentioned in the same sentence as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, elevated and enriched the mystery genre. He changed the hard-boiled detective novel by giving his characters depth with story lines on several levels.

The characters — victims as well as perpetrators — would reveal dark secrets, psychological conflicts and emotional outcomes. This was not standard in the genre up until then.

From 1944 to 1976, Macdonald published more than two dozen books, 18 of them about his protagonist, Private Investigator Lew Archer. Several were made into movies and TV series. Acclaim came later in life when he received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1974.

In the literary world, he was recognized as one of American’s finest novelists. Eudora Welty wrote a book review of Macdonald’s The Underground Man. It was one of the few ever to appear on the front page of The New York Times.

Jump back in time to my teen years growing up here. I remember a tragic incident that hit the front pages of the Santa Barbara News-Press in 1956. Linda Millar, age 16, had a hit-and-run accident down near the Milpas area, killing a 13-year-old boy.

She and her parents, Margaret and Ken Millar, were in the news for several days. It was a traumatic time for the family, with further ramifications and other tragic situations through the years. Linda died in her sleep at age 31.

I also knew the Millar name because close childhood friend Bonnie Temple Buzard’s father, Willard Temple (Give It Back to the Lemongrowers, 1961), was an author.

He and her mother were part of a close literary group here in Santa Barbara that included the Millars. I remember talk of them when at her house. She and I touched base recently when she recalled those times.

“My parents would have gatherings at their house with the Millars, Bill Gault, Dennis Lynds and Larry Pidgeon (Santa Barbara News-Press editor) and their wives,” Buzzard said. “I remember Ken as a quiet man who was very nice to our family when we moved to Santa Barbara from New Jersey in 1955. He and his wife, Margaret, took us to lunch at the beautiful Coral Casino and showed us some of the lovely sights in Santa Barbara.

“My dad and Ken shared the same agent, Dorothy Olding of Harold Ober & Associates in New York City.”

Robert Easton (The Happy Man, 1977), the father of another friend, Joan Easton Lentz (A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region, 2013), was Millar’s best friend. She quoted her father.

“My friendship with Ken became my basic literary friendship and my most rewarding one because we shared so much,” she said. “And regardless of personality or other differences, we shared that serious concern for writing and literature.”

The two men would take frequent walks on the beach together.

“Dad worshipped Ken and felt very close to him,” Lentz said. “It was terribly sad when Ken sank into early Alzheimer’s and died. Very hard for my father.”

Millar organized these men friends among others for the famous bi-weekly writers’ lunches at El Cielito restaurant in La Arcada starting in the 1950s. They were closed to women until the 1980s after Alzheimer’s prevented his attendance.

Several years into adulthood I began reading mysteries. My friend, Gayle Lynds (The Assassins, 2015) recommended someone she thought among the best mystery writers, Ross Macdonald.

What an eye opener. His books had me mesmerized, especially the way he took plain writing and turned it into poetry within the novel. His great mysteries were often set in the fictional town Santa Teresa copied after Santa Barbara.

As time passed, I was floored to learn that Ken Millar was the famous Ross Macdonald. He appeared to have the perfect life living in a beautiful house in Hope Ranch with his famous author/wife.

Through his friendship with Barnaby Conrad, he participated in the early years of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Behind that Hope Ranch front door, however, was a life of highs and lows.

As a child, his father abandoned the family. Millar then moved among different relatives while his mother struggled.

His marriage to Margaret Millar was a difficult relationship, although they stayed with each other. Then they endured troubles with their daughter.

The emotions and trauma of all this often came through characters in his books. It made me admire the man as a writer even more.

His biographer, Tom Nolan, in Ross Macdonald: A Biography (2008) details the Millars’ personal life. At one point, he sums up Millar’s literary contribution.

“By any standard he was remarkable,” he wrote. “His first books, patterned on Hammett and Chandler, were at once vivid chronicles of a post-war California and elaborate retellings of Greek and other classical myths.

“Gradually he swapped the hard-boiled trappings for more subjective themes: personal identity, the family secret, the family scapegoat, the childhood trauma; how men and women need and battle each other, how the buried past rises like a skeleton to confront the present. He brought the tragic drama of Freud and the psychology of Sophocles to detective stories, and his prose flashed with poetic imagery.”

Local author Sue Grafton (X: A Kinsey Millhone Novel, 2015) of the alphabet mysteries admits that her admiration for Macdonald is close to worship. She chose to put her protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, in the same city as Lew Archer, Santa Teresa, a way of honoring her literary mentor.

“If Dashiell Hammett,” she said, “can be said to have injected the hard-boiled detective novel with its primitive force, and Raymond Chandler gave shape to its prevailing tone, it was Ken Millar, writing as Ross Macdonald, who gave the genre its current respectability, generating a worldwide readership that has paved the way for those of us following in his footsteps.”

In commemoration of Millar’s 100th birthday this year, several projects are bringing his work back to the current marketplace. Among them this April was Four Novels of the 1950s: The Way Some People Die / The Barbarous Coast / The Doomsters / The Galton Case (Library of America).

In 1977 I had my first introduction to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference by attending an evening lecture by one of the century’s greatest women writers, Eudora Welty. Her close friend, Macdonald, had brought her to SBWC for the second time.

They began their correspondence with a note from Millar telling her how much he thought of her writing in 1969.

That began nearly 12 years of correspondence with well more than 300 letters. These letters expressed an intimacy of very close friends bordering on a love affair. As he put it, “friends till death.”

She states, “I can’t tell you what a joy it was to feel that I live in your world, as you live constantly in mine.”

Due to family obligations and schedules, they seldom met. In a letter she mentions disappointment but adds, “Meanwhile there are letters.” Hence a unique book released this summer: Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Arcade Publishing, 2015). Nolan co-edited the book with Welty’s biographer, Suzanne Marrs.

As a part of the Santa Barbara Book & Authors Festival in the early 2000s, Nolan helped create the Ross Macdonald Literary Award. Over eight years it was given to authors such as Grafton, Dean Koonz, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, T.C. Boyle and others.

These featured speakers added cachet to the festival. Most have the award listed on their websites, some right up there to be viewed first, a sign of their appreciation.

Although the festival closed in 2009 and the Ross Macdonald Award went dormant, it has not been forgotten. At the 2016 Santa Barbara Writers Conference, the award will be revived and once more awarded for literary excellence, the winner to be announced.

Norman Colavincenzo, trustee of the Margaret Millar Charitable Remainder Unitrust, reports that the writer/director duo Coen Brothers, along with Warner Brothers, have signed up to produce MacDonald’s Black Money as a major motion picture, probably with a different title.

Colavincenzo added that Syndicate Books has released Margaret Millar’s Beast in View this month. In September, Library of America published Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s, which included her, Patricia Highsmith, Charlotte Armstrong and Dolores Hitchens, edited by Sarah Weinman.

On a long airplane ride I recently took, I began reading The Galton Case . The flight flew faster than the plane.I once again realized that Ross Macdonald changed not just the mystery genre but influenced American literature.

From the beginning, he had me turning pages as fast as possible. His set-up, depth of characters, pacing, use of details — all added to a great story written not in the hard-boiled detective story of the time but in an  entertaining, unforgettable literary style.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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