Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past by Ross Macdonald, edited by Ralph B. Sipper (1981)
This thin book is as close to an autobiography of Kenneth Millar ("Ross Macdonald") as we are going to get. Millar was born in Los Gatos, California in 1915 of Canadian parents and thus was born an American citizen -- something that his mother repeated taught him as a catechism throughout his youth in Canada. As a result, Millar always felt displaced, neither a Canadian nor an American. Adding to his sense of loss was the desertion of his father when Millar was three or four (he hints at both ages in the various places) and the not so gentile poverty he and his mother faced during his childhood years. Bounced from home to home and place to place, Millar calculated he had lived in fifty places by the time he graduated high school.
This upbringing is a key to understanding both the writer and the man -- at least, as far as the pieces in this collection would have us believe. (And who are we to dispute them?) As anyone who has read the Lew Archer novels knows, the key to the mystery often lies in family secrets and relationships that go back for generations. Only when one is confronted with the past can order be brought to the mystery, the novel, and the characters.
Self-Portrait: Ceaselessly Into the Past contains 21 short pieces -- articles, essays, speeches, an interview, introductions and forwards, and a snippet from Millar's notebooks -- each revealing some aspect of his personality and/or his approach to writing. Because these are culled from various places and various years (from 1952 to 1979) there is a lot of repetition, none of which is really bothersome. Millar was too good a writer for that.
Here he lays out his major themes: identity, the impact of the past, a love for the sea and the environment, empathy for the underdog, the importance of character, and so on. He explains the meaning of the detective story in today's world and traces the development of the detective story from old narratives to its gothic origins to Dickens and Collins to van Dine, Sayers, and Christie to Hammett and Chandler and beyond. The detective novel, like the detective writer, is a changing thing, Millar tells us: constantly changing, constantly growing.
There's a lot to digest in these 129 pages. If you are hankering for an intimate conversation with one of the Twentieth Century's best authors, look no further. Recommended.
As usual, Patti Abbott provides the links to other Friday's Forgotten Books on her fantastic blog Pattinase. Be there or be square.