A case could be made that Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald) and Margaret Millar (a pioneer of psychological suspense) were and are the most distinguished non-collaborating husband-and-wife couple in the history of mystery fiction. And there’s no doubt that the pressures and tensions of their 45-year marriage, which included the raising of a child, found their way into many if not most of their combined 52 novels. Early in their careers, the Millars told friends that many of their fictional characters’ best lines came from arguments they themselves had with each other.
|The Dark Tunnel by|
(Dodd, Mead and
Less healthy and friendly were the squabbles the Millars had over how to bring up their child. Maggie was determined to raise daughter Linda “scientifically” following the dictates of John Broadus Watson’s later-discredited “behaviorism,” which put demands on a child to perform but allowed little or no parental affection. Ken thought this idiotic and harmful. The Millars’ disagreements sometimes became physical, which could have done their observant daughter no good.
Once her family moved to California, and as she grew older, Linda felt more and more out of place in her own home. Both her hyperintelligent parents were always busy writing. Their daughter became a precocious reader of authors far above her grade level: Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Carson McCullers—and her own mother and father, in whose works she recognized thinly-disguised portraits of each other and of herself.
Grade-school counselors warned Ken and Maggie of Linda’s social maladjustment. By adolescence, she was secretly running with a wild crowd, getting drunk, and having sex. Her parents remained oblivious and hoped college would prove her salvation. But in 1956, 16-year-old Linda was charged with vehicular homicide in a hit-and-run accident in which a 13-year-old pedestrian was killed. After a suicide attempt and three months’ confinement in a mental hospital, Linda was found guilty in juvenile court of two felony charges and placed on eight months’ probation.
The family moved north to Menlo Park, where Linda completed high school and was accepted to UC Davis. Her parents returned to Santa Barbara. In 1959, Linda disappeared from the Davis campus for eight days, during which her father went on a well-publicized search for her and (with the help of private detectives) found her in Reno.
|Beast in View by Margaret|
Millar (Random House, 1955),
collected in the forthcoming
Women Crime Writers:
Eight Suspense Novels of
the 1940s & 50s.
Linda died in 1970, at the age of 31, when her son was seven. Her death drove an emotional wedge between Maggie and Ken. Maggie stopped writing for six years, while Ken worked at a slower pace than before. In time, Margaret Millar once more picked up her pen, producing her last books after Ross Macdonald, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, was no longer able to work.
Writers used their imaginations, Ken Millar once said, to allow readers to undergo extreme experiences they would not be able to endure in real life. But Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar both imagined dire happenings and also endured them. Both paid a high price for their fiction’s authenticity—as did their only child.
(Readers, take note: Margaret Millar’s 1955 novel Beast in View will be included in Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, a two-volume set coming from The Library of America in September. Click here for a complete list of titles in the anthology.)
Previously in this series:
Ross Macdonald, perpetual stranger in his native California
Ross Macdonald: “Chandler tried to kill me”