When it comes to the settings of classic detective stories, Santa Barbara doesn’t instantly spring to mind as offering a suitable web of intrigue. Yet for Ross Macdonald, the goings on in this seaside city provided the inspiration for what would become one of America’s celebrated series of detective novels. Macdonald-actually a pseudonym employed by longtime Santa Barbara resident Kenneth Millar-lived here with his wife, writer Margaret Millar, between 1946 and 1983. Their observations of social life in the city around them formed the basis for the 18 books that saw Ross Macdonald rise from a respected regional writer to a national bestseller. Macdonald’s most renowned character, detective Lew Archer, has recently become the subject of a collected works. Edited by Macdonald biographer and noted journalist Tom Nolan, The Archer Files comprises the spectrum of short Archer fiction, including a selection of material never before published. Brett Leigh Dicks recently caught up with Nolan to do a little detective work himself.
How did you first become aware of Kenneth Millar’s work? In 1959, his daughter Linda disappeared from UC Davis and was missing for about 11 days. It was a huge story; it made front-page headlines all over the state for at least a week. Ken Millar hired private detectives and worked closely with the police in an attempt to find her. A little later when I was in a store, I saw some of his paperbacks, and made the connection that this was the person who had been all over the media. I had always been interested in detective fiction, so it wasn’t too long before I started reading Macdonald.
And his writing obviously resonated with you? I always returned to his books throughout the years because they had an emotional quality and stylistic achievement that was quite unique. As time passed, his reputation grew, and he eventually emerged outside of the detective genre and became a mainstream novelist and national bestseller. He even made the cover of Newsweek.
A few years back, you tackled a Ross Macdonald biography. What inspired you to take that on? I thought his was kind of a puzzling story because, although you had been reading him all these years and you knew the person behind those books must be a person of highly refined sensibilities and great sensitivities, and someone who had experienced a lot of life’s rewards and also pain, you still didn’t know very much about him. His books were so compelling that there just had to be a story there that should be told.
And now you have evolved from biographer to editor. How did that come about? I hate to waste anything! I simply found a lot of material that I just couldn’t use in the biography, and, because it was such interesting and valuable stuff, I didn’t want to let it slip away. Among the material were unpublished stories that were the basis for later novels, along with a selection of stories that were never finished.
In the new book, The Archer Files, you have also compiled a biography of Lew Archer himself. What led you to that? Macdonald prided himself on not making Archer the central character within his novels. He didn’t think the attention belonged on the protagonist; he thought the real interest was in the various other characters-the villains and the victims-anyone else but Archer. So, in one book, you typically don’t find out very much about Archer himself. But across the course of Millar’s work, if you start digging, you can form a reasonably complete picture of the man. And that’s what I did.
Millar and his wife were longtime Santa Barbara residents. How did the place play out in their lives? Millar was fascinated by it, but always felt a little out of place. He was born in northern California, and raised in Canada. His wife and little girl settled in Santa Barbara while he was away at war, and that is where they remained for the rest of their lives. Millar could appreciate the beauty of the city and was intrigued by its people, but always had a sense of distance that allowed him to see it with the objective eye of an outsider. That’s something I feel characterizes all great Californian writers-most of them come from somewhere else.
What did Santa Barbara offer as a setting for his writing? The Millars would always go to the Coral Casino Club. They would entertain and relax there, but they also used it as a listening post and a laboratory-they kept a very sharp eye on the people at the club, and that was a big source of fictional fuel for them. They would go around town to other places-various restaurants and bars-to observe people in other situations, too. Both of them attended many trials at the Santa Barbara Courthouse, including, but not limited to, several murder trials.
Tom Nolan will hold a book-signing, discussion, and reception for The Archer Files at Borders Books (900 State St.) on Wednesday, September 5, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 899-3668.