Yellow cliffs fall to a bouldered beach. In a cove of bright sand, a well-dressed young man stands staring out to sea. Gulls ride the swells. Further out, a seal is cruising, white spume in the green water. An older man hurries along the beach. He meets the young man, kisses him and they disappear, hand in hand. Now the beach is bare. Slowly what appeared to be a seal turns out to be a swimmer, emerging from the surf as a vigorous, middle-aged man with steady blue eyes that have seen everything.

A scene from a murder mystery? No, but it soon may be. The man whose blue eyes witnessed this incident a month ago off the beach at Santa Barbara, Calif., is known to millions as Ross Macdonald, a contemporary American master of detective fiction. In the last 30 years, Macdonald's 24 thrillers have sold more than 20 million copies and earned more than $10 million. In April his oeuvre was honored by his peers of the craft, when they presented him with an "Edgar"—the Edgar Allen Poe award of the Mystery Writers of America. Taking their impulse from the hard-boiled tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Macdonald's novels on the misadventures of private detective Lew Archer have evolved structures and implications ever more complex and ambitious. In a critical appreciation, the distinguished Southern writer Eudora Welty articulated what many critics have come to feel: that Macdonald is a major novelist writing in what the culture considers a gimmick medium. And any student of Southern California will grant that he is a brilliant if melancholy chronicler of that catch-basin civilization.

Off the page, Macdonald presents the sort of personality puzzle Lew Archer likes to solve. Private and stiffly proper, he writes under an alias—Kenneth Millar (pronounced Miller) is his real name—and at 58 he looks more like a successful funeral director than a famous author. His normal expression is blank as a slab, his idea of stylish is a banker's gray sport jacket, his conversation is yes, no and the weather. "I once drove 90 miles with Ken," says a friend, "and the only word he said was goodbye." But Millar's silence emanates mystery and power. Inside the power there is tenderness, inside the tenderness—violence?

A fierce old man sits sputtering in the witness box. From a back bench, Millar is watching. Trials fascinate him. He spends days on end in Santa Barbara courtrooms, seining for characters.

"See the eyes, the forehead, the nose?" Millar whispers. "Dominated by reason. But the mouth is completely appalled! As if all his life the mouth had been dragged, protesting, by the will."

Frail and exhausted, the old man's wife sits blankly at the litigant's table.

"The suit was his idea," Millar whispers. "When she was injured, he was walking beside her. Now he has to prove he wasn't to blame. He'll prove it if it kills her!"

Under cross-examination, the old man makes careless admissions that damage his wife's case.

"See? He doesn't really want to win the suit. Having failed with his wife, he's demanding satisfaction from society." Millar sighs. "That's the story of all reformers."

A small, anxious boy is pushing with all his might at the door of a cabana in an exclusive Santa Barbara beach club. Inside the cabana, two larger boys are holding the door shut. On his way to the pool, Millar pauses.

"Please let me in! Please!" the outsider wails. His tormentors giggle.

Millar leans against the cabana door. With a cry of relief, the boy darts in. Millar rolls his eyes at the other two. "I thought there must be six boys in here!" he says.

The compliment softens it, but the rebuke is felt. As Millar leaves, the three boys begin to play together quietly.

"Why did you do that?" Millar is asked.

"That boy needs help," he answers with flat force. "I've known him since he was born."

Millar has a partner in crime. His wife—as Margaret Millar—has written 19 novels of suspense, among them a couple of Gothic thrillers (Beast in View, The Fiend) as hair-raising as anything in that genre. She is also a gifted pianist, took honors in Greek and wrote a first-rate book about the birds and beasts of Santa Barbara. Tall, full-bodied and hearty, Margaret has a joshing way with her that fills in her husband's silences and tickles his funnybone.

One day in the beach club pool, Margaret is asked teasingly, "How does it feel to be married to a great man?"

"Haa!" she yelps. "Ask Mrs. Nixon!" Whirling, she splashes water in her husband's face. "And how does it feel to be married to a great woman?"

"Uuuhhh!" he groans. "I can't say it's like climbing Everest—but maybe Annapurna."

In 36 years together the Millars have staked out a large common ground. They love birds and watch them continually. They hate war and pollution and write and fight against them. They are fitness freaks—every day she swims a quarter-mile in the pool, he swims a half-mile in the open sea. Evenings they bike for an hour or so together. But one house is a small container for two such vehement individuals, and the Millars are careful to stagger their schedules—she is the morning person, he is the night bird.

Damn-all independent, Margaret has her own car, her own bedroom-study, her own friends. She is more social than her husband but seems less comfortable with people. At her most ebullient she never quite drops her guard, never quite laughs away the shadow of pain in her eyes.

One day, with an effort, Millar explains. Four years ago their only daughter, Linda, died at 31 "of a cerebral accident, after a difficult life. Margaret took it very hard. She hasn't completed a book since."

Millar's silence is like the cap on a gusher. Pry it off and passionate intelligence comes roaring out.

"I distrust any group of people who get together to celebrate what they have in common."

"Marriage is a battleground where both can win. Without marriage, you just go on fighting Waterloo over and over."

"People grow best under tragic circumstances. But under such circumstances growth leads nowhere."

"Tragedy happens when you lose what is most valuable to you. But that means you have found out what is most valuable—and have even had it!"

"The human world is not a machine. It is a work of human—and superhuman—art. Eros creates it. Eros is my favorite god."

Millar's wisdom is like scar tissue: acquired in a harsh battle to survive. His father was an aging Jack Londonesque journalist and sea captain in Vancouver, B.C., his mother a middle-aged nurse broken down by typhoid and other illnesses. When Millar was 3, they split. Father had a series of strokes that left him crippled and unable to speak. Mother went back to eastern Canada, where the boy was bumped from relative to relative—most of them puritanical, none grateful for an extra mouth to feed.

"We were poor among the poor," Millar says bleakly. "By the time I was 16, I had lived in 50 different houses. In my childhood I saw many crimes committed—I write about what I know. I hated my life, and I blamed my parents for it. I was angry and desperate, because I saw no way out—if the elevator doesn't go up, you're stuck in the basement for life."

With a jolt, the elevator went up. Father died. On the proceeds of his small insurance policy, Millar went to college. One day in the library, he ran into a girl he had met in his teens, the daughter of the mayor of Kitchener, Ontario. They married the day after graduation, and Millar went to work on a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Michigan.

World War II shunted Millar's career off the academic track, though he finally took his degree in 1951. After serving as communications officer on a U.S. escort carrier, he came back to a subtropical paradise and a famous wife. While he was away, Margaret had bought a house in Santa Barbara and published her first best-seller. "If she can do it," Millar told himself, "so can I." But it wasn't quite as easy as that.

"I felt a strong need to write," Millar explains, "but I had no clear subject to write about. I needed the support of a locale and a form. I was lucky in both cases. In California a new civilization was arising, and in Santa Barbara I found a chunk of it I could digest. In the detective novel I found a form that corresponds to the forms of my own life and the times we live in—on the one hand, violent destruction of order and meaning; on the other, unrelenting effort to put the world together again."

Millar in fact has dramatically wrenched the detective form to his own purposes. "In my books the detection usually takes less than a week, but the characters span three generations. I write three-decker Victorian chronicles collapsed to one deck. There is the original Adamic fall, and there are the consequences. The problem of detection is to follow the consequences back to the crime, and then to see the pattern of the event entire."

Within this structure, Millar's obsessive themes evolve and writhe like the asps in Cleopatra's basket. The broken family, the murder seen by a child, the search for someone lost (often a daughter), the anguish of women, the longevity of hatred, the fatal glory of desire, the dirty life that money lives, the healing power of love.

The living center of Millar's stories is the private eye Lew Archer. Middle-aged, divorced, half-educated but a California cosmopolitan, Archer is the most agonized of shamuses. Like some scruffy, inadequate redeemer, he suffers in sympathy with victims and criminals alike, but "gets to love them only when it's too late." Says Millar: "I'm not Archer exactly, but Archer is me." And the detective device is "a welder's mask enabling me to handle dangerously hot material."

Millar uses another "protective interface"—the power of language. In moments of passion his prose fills up with music and colors as a tree fills up with brilliant birds. "The jays were all around him like chunks of broken sky." "An unbroken stream of headlights poured toward us from Los Angeles, as if the city was leaking light from a hole in its side." In moments of irony it shapes to its subject as subtly as a nylon stocking shapes to a leg. "Like other half-smart, alienated men, he seemed to find it hard to believe that there was knowledge in the world besides his own."

Well-to-do, but not extravagant, the Millars live in a comfortable secluded ranch house. There is a pool on the terrace and the house is furbelowed with exotic shrubs. Oranges glow in the foliage, crowds of birds pother at baths and feeders.

Millar's workroom is a small drab cube containing a bed, some books and one enormous old chair that looks like a red whale with skin trouble. Five days a week, Jonah-like, Millar is swallowed by his whale in the late morning and regurgitated in the late afternoon. He works on at least two books at once from elaborate notes made in wire-ring notebooks. He never outlines—"I never know what the next chapter will be until I start to write it"—but the first draft is the final draft.

On weekends, Millar's grandson Jimmy, now 11, often comes to visit. Jimmy is a bright, outgoing boy and a demon swimmer—he can almost beat Grandpa when they race the length of the pool. They go for long walks on the beach with MacDuff, a young German shepherd, and Grandpa beams with pride when the boy fires off a firecracker string of questions about the operation and maintenance of a Boeing 747. Sometimes Jimmy riles up painful memories—he has his mother's dark-lashed violet eyes—but for the most part Millar has achieved the order and serenity he longed for as a boy.

"I've lived in one city and stuck to one woman and one line of work," he says softly. "It's a protected life. Living with fictional characters is like being a psychiatrist sheltered from your patients. Santa Barbara gives me nearly all the experience I need now—the main things happened before I was 30. My work has been a weapon against life, a way of coming to reasonable terms with it."