KENNETH MILLAR – The Dark Tunnel. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1944. Lion #46, paperback, 1950. Gregg Press, hardcover, 1980. Also published as I Die Slowly. Lion Library LL52, paperback, 1955.

   Ross Macdonald penned his first novel, The Dark Tunnel, in 1944 under his birth name Kenneth Millar. A detective story where the protagonist is a professor rather than a private investigator, the book is best categorized as a work of mystery fiction with strong elements borrowed from the type of thrillers that inspired many a Hitchcock film. Although by no means a flawless work, Millar’s debut novel demonstrates the author’s fluidity with language, particularly the hardboiled vernacular that has become the trademark patois of those writers who have followed in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

   Published during the Second World War – and soon before Millar entered service in the U.S. Navy – The Dark Tunnel refers to a physical place detailed in one of the more action oriented portions of the novel. It likewise serves as an apt metaphor for Germany’s descent into Nazism. After all, Germany was not some backwater, uncivilized country; it was a country with a rich cultural and literary tradition that nonetheless chose a dark path.

   The novel follows the path of Dr. Robert Branch, a literature professor at an unnamed Midwest university set in the fictional town of Arbana (a clear stand-in for Ann Arbor, Michigan). After Branch’s colleague, Alec Judd, informs him of a Nazi spy ring operating in Michigan, Branch is plunged into a nightmarish world of murder and subterfuge wherein he both witnesses one murder and is falsely accused of another. Millar’s academic background – he went on to receive a doctorate in literature after the Second World War – influences his prose, lending the work a frenetic Kafkaesque quality that is more refined than some of his lesser known contemporaries.

   Then there’s the girl. A beautiful redheaded German actress named Ruth Esch with whom Branch had a whirlwind romance when he was in Munich in 1937, well before the United States was at war but after the Nazi jackboots had taken power. When Ruth Esch reappears in Arbana, years after being interned in a concentration camp, Branch’s past and present collide in a maelstrom of brutal political violence.

   Critics may bristle someone at Millar’s treatment of the dual subjects of homosexuality and transvestitism, both of which play pivotal roles in the unraveling of the mystery and which (Plot Alert) are linked, at least implicitly, with Nazi decadence. These topics, while not overtly exploited for sensational purposes, do lend the work a pulpy, sordid feel that likely shocked some readers when the book first appeared on bookshelves. Some may feel the emphasis on the villains’ sexuality to be a distraction from what is otherwise an impressive tale of an ordinary American man thrust into a world he doesn’t fully comprehend.

   More distracting for me, however, was the suspension of disbelief constantly required to accept that a professor of literature would speak in such a hardboiled manner, let alone mouth off to authority figures such as the police and the feds. Robert Branch comes across as a working class PI masquerading as a professor, a product more of the school of hard knocks than of the mandarin university system.

   Millar was clearly finding his voice at this point in his career. Academia was the world he knew. So it made perfect sense for him to create a character set in the milieu he best understood. But it’s clear that inside Robert Branch, there was a cynical Lew Archer waiting to get out and make his presence to the world known.