Book Review: Tom Nolan's Ross Macdonald: A Biography
“What the reader hopes most to see in a biography is the work of the intelligent scholar who also feels an affinity for his subject.”
- from Eudora Welty’s review of Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford Madox Ford
Tom Nolan satisfies the reader on both counts. His research is thorough and his approach is fair. At the same time, he holds Macdonald/Millar in high regard, portraying a complex man who fought like the devil to get the recognition he thought he deserved, and to protect his daughter, yet who is also often described as tender, kind, gentle, eager to be a mentor to the young.
Included are the anecdotes of people who found Ken Millar charming and his wife Margaret threatening, and the perspective of folks who found Margaret the life of the party and Ken Millar a tough nut to crack. The reader is left with a feel for how complicated, deep, troubled and solid the Millar marriage was.
Nolan has a lovely technique of starting each chapter with an epigraph — a quote from something Millar or a fan, enemy or fellow writer wrote. Sometimes the quote is explained further in the chapter, sometimes it serves simply as enlightening bonus material. I appreciated these quotes — they left some dots for the reader to connect, and since most of the readers of this biography are probably mystery fans, it was a delightful gift to us.
Nolan also chooses material that’s fresh even for those who’ve read the letters Millar and Eudora Welty exchanged (published as Meanwhile There Are Letters). It made me aware of — and grateful for — the extensive research and scholarship that Nolan put into this work. He also manages to capture the drama of Millar’s daughter’s brushes with the law in a way that’s gripping without imitating the calloused sensationalism of a gossip magazine. Nolan brought to those moments all the compassion Lew Archer brings to his investigations.
Some of the descriptions about Millar’s difficult contract negotiations with Hollywood film producers, etc. included more detail than I needed, although I’m sure these negotiations did occupy a great deal of Millar’s attention and energy.
But overall this was a stellar biography. I found myself admiring Ken Millar as much as Tom Nolan and Eudora Welty did. In fact, I was afraid I would have to have a good hard cry at the inevitable ending (so sad in this biography, although that’s not the case in every biography). However, my edition is missing a single page (411-412) which effectively jarred me out of my tearfulness.