Invisible Ink: No 139 Kenneth Millar

 

That name won't ring a bell, so try this: Ross Macdonald. Born in California in 1915 and raised in Canada, Kenneth Millar passed through a number of homes, and the troubles he experienced during these Dickensian shifts eventually made their way into his fiction.

A recurring theme in this column is the implementation of Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hour rule". Writers such as Millar honed their craft by putting in a huge amount of work before their first big hit, often writing for the numerous pulp magazines that existed at the time. He married Margaret Sturm, a doyenne of the surprise-twist psychological suspense thriller, but his literary interests lay elsewhere. A great admirer of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, Millar chose a pseudonym to distance his writing from his wife's, then created the divorced former cop turned tough-guy private detective Lew Archer by amalgamating the name from Miles Archer, Sam Spade's partner, and Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur. His first short story featuring Archer appeared just after the war, and full-length novels arrived three years later.

What differentiated Millar's writing from the usual hard-boiled noir of the period was his addition of psychological insight, often following mythic Greek themes. He felt that much genre fiction failed to reflect life as he experienced it, and sought to create new empathies. By burying problems in the early lives of his characters, he could allow these to surface and affect his characters' destinies. As a result, his work had far more resonance than most noirs of the post-war period. The Chill is probably his most powerful and surprising novel.

Millar brought compassionate understanding to the private eye genre, but for a while he continued to follow Chandler's tradition (not that the threatened Chandler cared for this homage). His seventh Archer novel, The Doomsters, was grander in scope than Chandler's work, and was followed by The Galton Case, a thinly veiled Oedipal version of his own difficult life as a young man. Millar's reputation grew beyond the perceived limitations of the hard-boiled crime genre until he became regarded as a major American writer. Two of his Lew Archer stories were filmed with Paul Newman. Millar stated: "I see plot as a vehicle for meaning." His work, though sometimes flawed and over-complex, influenced a new generation of crime writers including John Connolly, but the Macdonald name-tag stubbornly remained on the secondhand stalls. Now Penguin has reissued the best volumes.

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