BWW Review: IT'S ALL ONE CASE Makes the Case for a Great Novelist
It's All One Case: The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives is the latest effort in the recent renaissance of the reputation of the mid-century detective writer who was born Kenneth Millar. It's an important, perhaps even central, addition.
Millar started out in the late forties as perhaps the best of the era's legion of Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett imitators. After marching swiftly to the top of that mountain, he, unlike everyone else who trod the same path, kept right on moving. By the time he finished, in the 1970s, he was being respectfully reviewed in high-toned literary magazines and discussed as an important American writer. More than that, he had transformed the possibilities of both hard-boiled detective fiction (for which he got much credit, some of it now forgotten) and the kind of modernist-suburban writing being done by the likes of John Updike and Raymond Carver (for which he got little or no credit, though he remains the prime poet of white suburban America's mysterious Post-War unease).
As this lovely coffee-table book of interviews-acutely conducted by the late critic and Millar confidante Paul Nelson in the mid-seventies-shows, no one was more surprised by the attention, or grateful to receive it, than the author himself.
But, as I noted in an earlier review of Library of America's recent collection of Macdonald's early novels, his high place was well earned. Hammett and Chandler have never stopped having imitators. Macdonald, the only one who made it to the level of a peer, has himself remained inimitable, not least because the seeds of civilizational collapse which could be observed sprouting in the undergrowth of his best novels have become the ugly, overgrown weeds of our current "culture."
That too, would not have surprised him.
As a coffee table book-a collection of personal and professional photos, letters, book covers, memorabilia-It's All One Case is exemplary. The compiler, Kevin Avery, has done a fine job of supplementing the tone of the text with the right imagery. One does not forget that Macdonald was, before all else, a dedicated craftsman, highly aware of his moment both inside the publishing world of his time and in the world at large. The design accentuates the mood without detracting from the book's prime purpose, which is to get inside the mind of a first-rate working writer.
Within two severe, if understandable, limits, one imposed on Nelson by Millar/Macdonald, another by an accident of timing, those interviews are as good as any interrogation of an artist as you are likely to encounter.
The first limit was that the subject of the life and death of Millar's daughter, Linda, who had died in 1970, was not to be discussed. Since Macdonald was a profoundly introspective writer, nearly obsessed by personal psychology, and his daughter led an extremely unhappy and self-destructive life-the result, perhaps of being the daughter of not one, but two, highly successful and self-absorbed professional novelists (Millar's wife, Margaret, was an award winning crime novelist worthy of her own renaissance)-this natural reticence leaves a blank space that can never be covered by Millar's past and future biographers as well as it might have been if he had been more forthcoming with the interviewer who got closest to him.
The other unfortunate circumstance is that Millar was beginning to suffer from an early onset of the Alzheimer's that would take his life in 1983. Nothing could be done about that, but Avery's notes do an excellent job of keeping the reader apprised of when and where the disease may have had an effect on Millar's memory.
Beyond those quibbles, It's All One Case is everything a fan of the writer, the period, or the detective form, could hope for.
Even those of us who agree with Millar's own assertion that "You don't have to know anything about the writer to understand the fiction," can acknowledge that anyone as self-aware as Millar was bound to reveal some meaningful part of himself when he was being queried with the honesty and intelligence Nelson brought to these interviews. Just how much he revealed, though, is a pleasant surprise.
It was hardly a given, for instance, that the man whose alter ego, Lew Archer, once lamented that rock and roll was "music for civilizations to decline by" would be a big Beatles fan.
On the other hand, no one who has read the Archer novels for either fun or profit could be surprised when Millar answers Nelson's "Do you think you're a prisoner of complexity in a way?" with "Yes, but a willing prisoner."
This rhythm of surprise and confirmation is what makes reading the book both an easy task (Millar was a great. fluent talker once he got going-not always a given with introspective writers) and a fascinating one (there's really no way to know what's coming next).
Certain themes do repeat: In addition to the expected references to Hammett and Chandler, Millar refers constantly to his favorite writer of all, F. Scott Fitzgerald, almost always with penetrating and useful insight. If you never thought of The Great Gatsby as a crime novel masquerading as high literature, he'll soon set you straight.
The book is divided by the subject matter of the interviews, rather than strict chronology, and once Nelson gets Millar rolling on a subject, any subject, the gems come forth with an easy flow:
You don't really become a Communist for no reason at all.
On Hammett's The Continental Op:
He isn't centrally a moral figure. How can he be when he reports in to a boss?
On myth versus realism:
I'm not writing about ordinary people, but on the other hand I'm not writing about the heroes of civilization either.
On modern cities (which he considered characters in themselves):
Cities have lost their claim to be centers of civilization-or if they are that they're also centers of violence.
On violence in his own life:
I don't have to be violent-my books are.
And on writing:
It's a demanding kind of work, you know, and it takes a long time to learn it and a long time to practice it. It can fill a life.
Of course, the theme that permeates the book more than any other is the relationship-real, imagined (by himself) and perceived (by others)-between "Ross Macdonald" and Lew Archer.
On that score, no one will ever better Millar's own description: "Imaginative autobiography."
For those significant parts of his life and work about which he was willing to open up, Millar was his own best critic and it's hard to imagine anyone who could have provided a better platform than Nelson, who unfortunately did not live to see this fine volume, perhaps his own most important work, published.
It's All One Case is an essential read for any fan or scholar of Ross Macdonald and American detective fiction generally. If you're not a fan, and you want to understand the direction of American life and culture in the past half-century, my advice is to read a lot of Lew Archer novels. But go ahead and buy yourself this one for a Christmas present. No matter how astute your own insights into the books might be, you'll always be able to learn more from the man whose final line here is "I don't intend to give up writing as long as I'm alive."
He was in the full grip of Alzheimer's shortly thereafter. He had no way of knowing that he had already written his last book.
One thing he did know was what our future would look like.
No writer ever brings a higher value than that.