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.
The Archer Files
- When: Wednesday, September 5, 2007, 7 p.m.
- Where: Borders Books & Music, 900 State St., Santa Barbara, CA
- Cost: Free
- Age limit: Not available
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.