Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 22, 2016


Strangers in Town by "Ross MacDonald" [Kenneth Millar] (2001)

Edited by MacDonald biograapher Tom Nolan, Strangers in Town contains three "newly discovered," unpublished mysteries found among Macdonald's papers, as well as a lengthy introduction by Nolan that takes up a fourth of the book.  The stories, one each from a different phase of MacDonald's career, provide an interesting look at his development as a writer.

The earliest story, "Death by Water," was written in 1945, while MacDonald was serving in the navy aboard the troop transport Shipley Bay.  Critic and mystery writer Anthony boucher had suggested to both Macdonald and his wife Margaret Millar that they submit a story to a contest sponsored by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Margaret Millar did not submit a story* but her husband wrote two stories for possible submission, both featuring the same character -- Santa Barbara private detective Joe Rogers.  He sent the stories to his wife, asking her to check on one detail in "Death on Water" and to adjust the last paragraph in the story accordingly, then to send what she felt was the better story to their agent to be submitted to the contest if it was worthwhile.  Instead, Millar, who liked both stories, sent the two directly to the magazine, where one of the stories took fourth place (and a $300 prize). Unfortunately, neither Millar nor MacDonald were told which of the two stories won.

It turned out "Death by Water" was not the winner, the story MacDonald had titled "Death by Air" won.  It was subsequently published in EQMM as "Find the Woman" and was later revised to change the character of Joe Rogers to Lew Archer for inclusion in MacDonald's collection The Nme Is Archer.  "Find the Woman" was originally published under MacDonald's real name Kenneth Millar, as was all of the author's early work; it the was only later that far more famous name Ross MacDonald came into being, and then after a series of name changes.

"Death by Water" reads like an early work, although the characterization and dialogue are strong, as is the author's sense of place.  The important clue stuck out like a sore thumb to me, although it may have not been as obvious to a reader in 1945.  A wealthy older man is found dead in a hotel swimming pool. Accident or murder?   If murder, was it his much younger invalid wife, her nurse, his stepson, one of the stepson's navy buddies, or someone else?

MacDonald's publisher, Alfred Knopf, hestitated to publish the author's third novel, feeling it was weaker than his two previous ones, both published under the Kenneth Millar by-line.  Millar told his agent to then submit the book (The Moving Finger) elsewhere under the name "John MacDonald."  Meanwhile, Knopf reversed its decision and agreed to publish the book as by "John MacDonald."  The Floirida mystery writer John D. MacDonald objected to the use of thaat name, so Millar became "John Ross MacDonald" for his next six books.

It was as John Ross MacDoald that the next story in the collection was written.  "Strangers in Town" was written as an entry for EQMM's 1950 competition but was withdrawn by MacDonald when he decided to use it as the framework for his next novel, The Ivory Grin.  (And, according to Nolan, MacDonald, incorporated parts of this story into his 1953 story "The Imaginary Blonde," a.k.a. "Gone Girl.")  "Strangers in Town" shows a more confident author.  The plot is more complex, there's a wider and more distinctive cast of characters, the author is delving into social issues, and the story itself speed along smoothly.  Here we find Lew Archer hired by a woman whose son has been accused of murder.  The victim, who had rented a room from Archer's client, had her throat sliced open by a Phillipino bolo knife.  A good story, well told.

The final story in the book, "The Angry Man," deals with an escaped mental patient who comes to Lew Archer for help.  The man is paranoid and easily set off...and he has a gun.  The gun isn't needed when he suddenly decides that Archer is an enemy.  He drops the gun and begins to strangle Archer with his strong hands.  He then drops Archer and leaves.  The man, it turns out, had been institutionalized after strangling his father, the owner of a successful family lemon farm. He feels his brother, who now owns the business, had cheated him and now he wants vengeance.  Archer travels to the farm hoping to stop a murder.  He encounters a truly disfunctional family, a trigger-happy and lovelorn sheriff, and (as is often the case in MacDonald's works) deadly secrets in the past.

'The Angry Man" had too much going for it as a short story and MacDonald realized this.  It eventually became the backbone of his 1958 novel The Doomsters.

The three stories, taken in order, display the maturing of one of America's finest writers of detective stories.  Highly recommended.

* Both Millar and MacDonald submitted stories to EQMM's 1953 contest; MacDonald's won third place while his wife's won aecond place

1 comment:

  1. Wonder what it must be like competing with ones spouse professionally. They both seemed to have thrived on it.