Created by Kenneth Millar
Pseudonyms include Ross Macdonald, John Ross Macdonald, John Macdonald
Legend has it that Canadian rocker Neil Young wrote “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Cinammon Girl” and “Down by the River,” three of his best-known early songs, in one afternoon, while sick with the flu, and running a fever of 103.
In a similar burst of legendary creativity, fellow Canadian Ken Millar (well, half-Canadian) wrote his first two private eye stories in one afternoon in late 1945, while serving in World War II on the Shipley Bay. Like Young, Millar grew up in Winnipeg, and ended up rich and famous and living in sunny southern California (Young in Malibu, Millar an hour away in Santa Barbara).
Millar, of course, would go on to find that fame as Ross Macdonald , one of the most celebrated private eye novelists of all time, while the detective hero of those two early stories, JOE ROGERS, would become Lew Archer.
Macdonald wrote those two Joe Rogers stories, “Death By Air” and “Death By Water,” for a short story contest in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The first one, retitled “Find the Woman,” wound up nabbing fourth place and $300 in prize money (some guy called William Faulkner came in second). The author, thinking the two stories were too similar, tossed the other story, “Death by Water,” in a box, where it apparently remained for decades, unpublished in his lifetime. And then it was discovered by deep-diving Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, who included it in the 2001 collection of lost Macdonald stories, Stranger in Town, which he edited. It was subsequently collected in The Archer Files (2015), which Nolan also edited.
There isn’t much difference, as far as I can tell, between Rogers and Archer, however. They’re both both Southern California detectives working in the Los Angeles area, although Rogers seems younger and a little less jaded than Archer, and it’s suggested, in “Death by Water” at least, that Rogers doesn’t live right in Los Angeles (he relates how he frequently crashes at his friend Al’s apartment-hotel whenever he drops by for a few beers. Al’s the house dick). Ellery Queen tags him as a “Hammett-Chandler tough hombre.”
The stories are decent stabs at private eye fiction, even if the dialogue’s a little stiff at times, and as a whole the stories aren’t as clever or as well-written as the author’s later work. The plots, in particular, are on the thin side, although there’s some nice character development, and it’s clear that Millar is already aiming for bigger things, sprinkling the stories with hints of the sort of morality tales, often wrapped in family dysfunction, which were to become Macdonald’s bread and butter.
In “Death by Air” (later re-titled “Find the Woman”), Rogers has just moved into his “brand new office with the odor of paint in (his) nostrils,” when he’s hired by Mrs. Dreen, the publicity director for Tele-Pictures, to find her missing starlet daughter, Una. Rogers spends most of the story driving back and forth between Santa Barbara, where Una was last seen, and Los Angeles, where her mother works. And as he drives back and forth, his disapproval of Hollywood and all it stands for only increases.
“Death by Water” also involves a death by drowning (the title just might be a clue), in this case that of an elderly hotel resident. It’s also evident that Millar’s read his Hammett and his Chandler, but once again, the story feels underdeveloped and tentative at times, although the potential suggested is impressive.
The slow dance of empathy and world-weariness that would become Archer’s trademark is already clearly in evidence. In fact, when “Find the Woman” was first collected in the 1955 collection, Archer at Large, Rogers was easily changed to Arhcer with barely a ripple.
Ross MacDonald fans who have already read all the Archer novels and stories will eat these early efforts right up, and curious readers interested in how a writer develops or detective fiction of the era may also enjoy them. Your milage may vary.
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Interestingly enough, “Find the Woman” was also Millar/Macdonald’s first sale to television. It appeared (retitled as “Epitaph for a Golden Girl “) as an episode of CBS’ short-lived mystery anthology, Pursuit, in 1958, starring Michael Rennie as Joe Rogers. Macdonald apparently insisted that the character be called Rogers, not Archer, who by then was gaining quite a bit of attention, both critically and commercially. Macdonald was very worried about losing the rights to his main character.
- “Death by Water” (2001, Strangers in Town)
Written in 1945.
- “Find the Woman” (June 1946, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; aka “Death by Air”)
Won $300 fourth prize in EQMM first-ever Best Detective Story contest.
- Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Stories (2001) | Buy this book
Three previously unpublished stories, edited by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, one featuring Joe Rogers (who was also in Macdonald’s 1st EQMM short, which was later re-written to star Lew Archer, and two with Lew Archer.
Mystery anthology series
12 60-minute episodes
- “Epitaph for a Golden Girl “
(December 3, 1958)
Based on the short story “Find the Woman” by Ross Macdonald
Screenplay by Lorenzo Semple Jr.
Directed by Daniel Petrie
Screenplay by Michael Rennie as JOE ROGERS
Also starring Joan Bennett, Rip Torn, Sally Forrest, Rick Jason
- “Epitaph for a Golden Girl “
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- June 11, 2021
Raise a glass (of Canadian whisky, perhaps) to Ross Macdonald’s first private eye.