By Fred Nadis
The private detective as pulp hero began in California. Dashiell Hammett set Sam Spade loose on San Francisco’s mean streets, creating the image of the private investigator, while Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe slummed his way through L.A., and Humphrey Bogart played both on film. In more recent decades, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins has riffed on the harsh African-American experience in Watts, while Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch still chases serial killers through his beloved, if often hellish, Los Angeles.
But Santa Barbara—present population 90,412, with an actual homicide rate of only two murders per year—has also proven itself rich terrain for the crime writer’s imagination. The best known of such current writers, Sue Grafton, has proven with her alter ego, Kinsey Millhone, that women detectives need not preside only over the tea parties and parlors of the “cozy” mystery. Grafton has just published, with the alluring title X, the 24th installment in the detective series that begin in 1982 with A Is for Alibi. She commented that one of the appeals of Santa Barbara is “the peace and beauty of the community in counterpoint to the dark heart of the murder mystery.”
Husband and wife Kenneth and Margaret Millar, however, were the first to see the mysterious promise of Santa Barbara: a garden of wealth, lush landscapes and architecture, yet rife with class divides, hustles big and small, and ugly secrets. With the pen name Ross Macdonald, Kenneth Millar wrote 18 novels of great psychological depth featuring private eye Lew Archer. Although based in Hollywood, Archer’s investigations of disappearances and murder trails frequently led to “Santa Teresa,” aka Santa Barbara, where the Millars settled in the 1940s. Both of the Millars won Edgars, and both served terms as president of the American Society of Mystery Writers. Although Macdonald is still linked to Hammett and Chandler as one of the pillars of the detective genre, Margaret experienced the earlier success and was the first to dub Santa Barbara “Santa Teresa.”
While her husband split his time between graduate school and duty on a World War II naval ship, Margaret Millar, a self-described independent woman, chafing in her role as a young mother, turned to the genre she had discovered at age eight thanks to her brother’s stash of Black Mask magazines. She wrote her first mystery novel, The Invisible Worm (1941), in 15 days. This was followed by several comic mysteries, then two featuring the dour Canadian Inspector Sands. Warner Brothers optioned the second of these, Iron Gates (1945), and hired Margaret on a weekly salary to pen the screenplay. While scouring Southern California for a suitable home, Margaret bought a place on Bath Street in Santa Barbara, left her young daughter, Linda there with a nanny and reported to work in Hollywood alongside William Faulkner and Christopher Isherwood.
The Millars’ success was sealed when Paul Newman took on the role of Lew Archer (renamed Lew Harper) in Harper (1966), a film based on Macdonald’s early novel, The Moving Target. While Harper was in production in 1964, the Millars moved from their second house, on Cliff Drive in Santa Barbara, to a four-acre property in Hope Ranch. The Millars’ fame—based on explorations of the darker side of human nature—was always a mixed blessing, as the pathologies and social disorders they wrote about were near to home. Kenneth grew up in a broken family, abandoned by his father, and when he was six, he had to beg his mother not to leave him at an orphanage in Canada. Instead, he stayed with a string of relatives, dependent on their charity, embittered and given to juvenile delinquency.
While writing helped him outwrestle his woes, his troubled daughter, Linda, found no such outlet. At times, as a child, Linda posed in faux murder scene tableaus to get a rise out of her mother. As a teen, driving drunk one rainy night, she skidded and killed a 13-year-old boy in a hit-and-run accident. At her trial, she was placed under psychiatric care and sentenced to a long probation. Linda Millar died unexpectedly in 1970 at age 31. Following her daughter’s death, Margaret quit writing for five years before turning again to crime novels. Meanwhile, Kenneth Millar, as Ross Macdonald, gained nearly mythic status as a writer—recognized on the covers of both the New York Times Book Review and Newsweek in 1971. Success brought no great joy. Like two plagued characters in a Greek tragedy, Kenneth steadily lost his mental lucidity and died of Alzheimer’s in 1983 at the age of 67, while Margaret lived on, battling blindness, until 1994.
Despite the Millars’ slow fade, Santa Teresa was not sealed off as a crime scene. Other mystery novelists appeared to explore its darkness—including Dennis Lynds (Michael Collins), Newton Thornburg, Richard Barre and Sue Grafton. Rather like Margaret Millar before her, Grafton was a refugee from screenwriting. In the late 1970s, during a split from her second husband, Grafton, an admirer of the Ross Macdonald books, began to develop the character of Kinsey Millhone, reimagining the macho gumshoe genre through this no-nonsense, yet upbeat Santa Barbara private eye. Grafton thinks of Kinsey as an alter ego, “The person I might have been had I not married young and had children.”
In a recent essay, Grafton revealed that, like Kenneth Millar, her own childhood was difficult. Her father, C.W. Grafton, was a Louisville lawyer and the writer of three mystery novels, but both he and Grafton’s mother were alcoholics who left Grafton and her older sister to fend for themselves. Grafton maintained a sunny disposition, but was eager to move on. Yet she retained her father’s love of mysteries. In the three decades since creating Kinsey Millhone, Grafton has worked her way through most of the alphabet of crime and has only two novels in the series left before retiring her alter ego.
Santa Barbara lies tantalizingly close to Hollywood. However, Grafton has vowed not to let a screenwriting team tamper with her creation. Millhone sprang, according to Grafton, from the “shadow” realm, from promptings in the night, and there, for readers to discover on their own, she will remain—Grafton’s braver, yet darker self.
This story originally appeared in the winter 2015/16 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.