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Homage to Ken and Maggie Millar


Ross’s Goodbye Look: As I prowled the tile-floored S.B. Courthouse corridors one day in the early 1960s, two friendly, smiling faces popped up before me. I had no idea who they were, but they seemed to know me. I was baffled but pretended to recognize them. And I should have. They were Santa Barbara’s most famous husband-and-wife writing team, Ken (Ross Macdonald) and Margaret Millar.

On the Beat

Ken was the soft-spoken author of detective novels that were more about death, wayward fathers, misled wives, and misbegotten children than about gritty streets and gangsters. Maggie, as friends called her, was considered by some Ken’s superior as a wordsmith, and a woman of biting wit and sharp intelligence.

Both are gone now, to the Great Bookshop in the Sky, but far from forgotten. Not only are all of Ken Millar’s books back in print or about to be, but the annual Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival each year honors him by presenting the Ross Macdonald Literary Award. This year it goes to Santa Barbaran T.C. Boyle, who’ll receive it at 8 p.m. on Friday at the Victoria Hall Theater.

Ken and Maggie loved prowling the courthouse, but there’s some doubt whether anything they absorbed made it into print. Ken’s forte was less courtroom drama than the trials of family relationships and dark stories that hide through generations, only to burst out in blood and murder. I’ve just re-read his 1969 novel, The Goodbye Look, which reeks of family scandal. Ken’s private eye, Lew Archer, doggedly, bitterly sets about unpeeling the onion layers of family pain.

Famed writer Eudora Welty called Ken “a more serious and complex writer than Chandler and Hammett ever were,” referring to the kings of hard-boiled detective fiction Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Ken’s world was not just sorting out fathers, mothers, and sons. There was danger aplenty. The blurb on The Goodbye Look cover jacket reads: “Another private detective on the case already had a bullet in his head. And if Archer stepped into his shoes, he’d be walking a one-way street to trouble that had begun 20 years and three dead bodies ago.”

Both Ken and Maggie were highly visible parts of the community. They carried the sense of indignation from their books over to issues in town, including the 1969 channel oil platform blowout that radicalized residents and helped spark the nation’s environmental movement. Anger flared after the blowout coated our beaches with oily slime. Both Millars were in the airport crowd when a blue-and-white private jet flew in carrying Fred Hartley, president of Union Oil, which was operating the guilty oil rig. Maggie was waving a “Ban the Blob” sign and Ken was booing. For some reason, Hartley strode over to Ken and demanded, “What’s your name?” Ken told him and gave Hartley a piece of his mind. “That was quite a speech,” Hartley muttered, and walked off. When someone at a government hearing here called the protesters a “bunch of hippies,” Maggie saw red. “I went home and dressed in my designer suit, my heels, and my best hat and returned with a sign: “Dept. of Interior-or of the Inferior?”

When the U.S. Forest Service decided to build a road through the Santa Barbara backcountry, threatening the wilderness area and the few remaining condors in a nearby sanctuary, Ken wrote a magazine piece about his mountaintop debate with the USFS superintendent. The two Millars and other conservationists testified at a hearing, challenging the plan. The road was never built.

At Friday night’s event, Ken’s biographer Tom Nolan will engage in a conversation with Boyle. Nolan is the author of the prize-winning biography, Ross Macdonald: A Biography, and he recently published The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator. It includes newly discovered “case notes” and unfinished short stories. Nolan is also the editor of a collection of short mysteries by Maggie called The Couple Next Door.

Tragically, at the height of his career, after 18 novels, Ken Millar’s brilliant mind was dimmed-and then destroyed-by Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 1983. But Maggie kept lurking around the cold and drafty courthouse, even though macular degeneration was stealing her eyesight. Even though nearly blind, she kept writing. She’d already written two dozen novels and was working on the next.

The last time I saw her, she was among court-watchers at the trial of Frederick George Roehler, 39, accused of the drowning deaths of his wife and stepson in the waters off Santa Cruz Island. Maggie scrutinized the jurors as they filed out for lunch on the fifth day of deliberations. Was it an accident, a tragic drowning? The jury finally rendered its verdict: guilty. What was the biggest murder case she’d seen in 35 years, I asked at the time. “The murder of the English language,” she snapped tartly, meaning the mispronunciation misdemeanors and phonetic felonies she’d heard in court. Maggie died in 1994, and I miss her.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.

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