Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross MacDonald

edited by Tom Nolan (Crippen & Landru, $15 paper, $37 cloth)

KENNETH MILLAR, the Southern


Book briefs

Strangers in Town: Three Newly Discovered Mysteries by Ross MacDonald

edited by Tom Nolan (Crippen & Landru, $15 paper, $37 cloth)

KENNETH MILLAR, the Southern California crime novelist who earned international renown under the pseudonym "Ross Macdonald," was never much of a short-story writer. From the time he began publishing books in the 1940s until his death in 1983, he did occasionally pen short crime fiction. But he was never as comfortable with that abbreviated form as with the complexity and pacing of full-length novels.

While Millar/Macdonald produced 18 books featuring a somewhat damaged but fully compassionate Los Angeles private eye named Lew Archer ("the finest series of detective novels ever written by an American," proclaimed The New York Times), he published only about a dozen short stories. It was not uncommon for Macdonald to start on a novella, only to later shelve it as the seed from which a more satisfying future Archer novel might grow.

That very fate befell two of the three stories compiled in Strangers in Town—the first offering of "new" Ross Macdonald fiction since his final novel, The Blue Hammer, hit bookstores in 1976. The author composed the initial tale here, "Death by Water," while still stationed on board an aircraft carrier during World War II, but set it aside because he thought its plot too similar to that of another short story that he'd written for a 1945 competition sponsored by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. (He wound up winning fourth prize.) Not until the 1990s, when SoCal book critic Tom Nolan was gathering material for his extraordinary study, Ross Macdonald: A Biography (1999), were these tales unearthed from what Nolan describes as "dozens of cartons [of paper] at Millar/Macdonald's archive in the Special Collections library at the University of California, Irvine."

The Strangers' yarns are interesting as markers along this author's literary evolution. In "Death by Water"—which sends an Archer precursor, L.A. sleuth Joe Rogers, to investigate the drowning of an aged hotel guest—Macdonald is obviously still trying the detective-fiction genre on for size, finding more ease in character development than the formulation of his plot, which is pretty thin and has since become a TV staple. The considerably more polished "Strangers in Town" (1950) finds Archer himself trying to clear a young black man of murder, a task complicated by the victim's involvement with gangsters. (Macdonald later cannibalized this story for his 1952 book, The Ivory Grin.) And in "The Angry Man"—a psychological drama that helped inspire The Doomsters (1958), the first of Macdonald's late-career novels built around the saga of a troubled family—Archer sets off to find the escaped mental patient who attacked him in his office and is the likely suspect in his brother's slaying.

However, these stories are also appealing in their own right—especially for those of us who thought, smugly, that we'd already read Macdonald's entire oeuvre. We were obviously clueless.


Augusta, Gone

by Martha Tod Dudman (Simon & Schuster, $23)

Given the popularity of books by mothers about mothering (It's hip! It's fulfilling! It's miraculous!), Martha Tod Dudman's harrowing account of her stormy relationship with her troubled teenage daughter Augusta brings a terrifying perspective to the sacred parent-child bond. No romp on the playground, this: Dudman, a divorced working mother of two, recounts Augusta's descent into truancy and drugs in the agonizing voice of a woman whose most prized possession is a source of constant suffering.

"I don't know where she is. . . . I can only follow her, rushing along after her voice in the darkness, calling to her, catching at her sleeve, at her arm, at her shoulder for a moment, as she hurtles forward. Worrying that I will fall, that I will fall and stumble and fall on the uneven ground, that I will skin my own knees, that she will fall, that I will not catch her in time."

Self-absorbed 15-year-old Augusta has fallen in with the wrong crowd and adopted their irrational philosophies ("[School] is so bad for us"), stays in her room smoking pot and bingeing on junk food to her loud stereo, and sneaks out at night to party with her older druggie pals. Sometimes she doesn't come home at all, dragging in barefoot and stoned the next day. As her dangerous habits escalate, so does the family's upheaval, until Dudman finds herself wondering when she's going to get a call from the local morgue.

The real story here belongs to Mom, however, and Dudman crafts a starkly honest portrait of a woman who's overcome her own bad habits and a bad marriage to succeed as a businesswoman, but who can't help but feel she's utterly failed at parenting. When Augusta's behavior reaches a point where both her child and her own life veer out of control, Dudman knows that some decisions need to be made—if not for her daughter, then for herself and her son. Cathartic, lyrical, and fiercely maternal, this parent's story reveals the despair in watching one's own child reject the last thing you have to offer: unconditional love.

Martha Tod Dudman reads at University Book Store April 2 at 7 p.m.


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