Reading Margaret Millar: Superior Bamboozler

Agatha Christie said her work was “very original”. Julian Symons declared that she “has few peers, and no superior in the art of bamboozlement”.

Soho Press Compilation, 2016

And Anthony Boucher said that Beast in View was “written with such complete realization of every character that the most bitter antagonist of mystery fiction may be forced to acknowldge it as a work of art”.

Over the past few months, I’ve enjoyed several of her novels; below: a summary of my experience.

Margaret Millar’s Vanish in an Instant (1952; 2016)
In a room, straight chairs are “lined up against the wall like mute and motionless prisoners”, a woman’s “cry of surprise hung in the air a moment like a question mark of smoke and then disintegrated” and another woman’s control “was slipping down like a zipper under too much pressure”. These little touches make reading Margaret Millar’s suspense a pleasure to read.

Margaret Millar’s Wives and Lovers (1954; 2016)
“It was a shoebox of a room, with the ceiling pressed down on it like a lid, and Gordon and herself, two mis-mated shoes, tossed together into the box by a careless clerk.” These mis-mated shoes are Gordon, the dentist, and Hazel, his assistant. It’s clear that they share an uncomfortable intimacy, and readers too are privy to too much information to be comfortable.

Margaret Millar’s A Beast in View (1955; 2016)
“A plate breaks and you throw it away. A person breaks and all you can do is pick up the pieces and try to put them together the best way you can.” Margaret Millar’s mysteries consider the broken pieces. They delight in the sharp edges but also the as-yet-undetected fissures.

Margaret Millar’s An Air that Kills (1957; 2016)
“You’re a fresh kid, Blake. Full of ideas, some of them good, full of stories, some of them true. But mostly full of you-know-what. I wouldn’t give you a job here even if I could. You’re trouble.” The editor of “The Globe and Mail” might not want to hire Blake, but he has a nose for a good story. So does Margaret Millar.

Soho Press Compilation, 2016

Margaret Millar’s The Listening Walls (1959; 2016)
“It was a street of conformity, where identical houses and the future were planned with equal care, and even if everything went wrong, the master plan remained in effect – keep up appearances, clip the hedges, mow the lawn, so that no one will suspect that there’s a third mortgage and that Mother’s headaches are caused by martinis, not migraine.” This question of keeping up appearances creates all kinds of opportunities for deception. “Nobody lies the way he’s lied unless he has something to hide.” Indeed, there are a lot of liars in Magaret Millar’s fiction. But only some of them are murderers.

Margaret Millar’s A Stanger in My Grave (1960; 2016)
Published in 1960, this attempt to address social inequities in crime fiction is interesting. But Margaret Millar’s strength remains in her depiction of quotidien detail, her willingness to expose and engage with the psyches of ordinary women. “Any good marriage involves a certain amount of playacting,” Daisy observes.

Margaret Millar’s  How Like an Angel (1962)
Even though these relationshps are the same sort which created such a tight net in Margaret Millar’s other mysteries…there is a sense of sprawl in this story, framed by the setting and Quinn’s solitary journey, which shifts the focus just enough for a truly surprising ending.

Margaret Millar’s The Fiend (1964)
Despair has devastating effects on some of the characters in this Margaret Millar novel, but the most devastating element of all is how mundane the damage is, how ordinary that the scuffle to conceal the devastation has become.

Margaret Millar’s Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)
This mundane darkness remains Margaret Millar’s ultimate fascination: “The rest of us have monsters too, but we must call them by other names, or pretend they don’t exist . . .”

In Letters to a Young Writer, Colum McCann writes: “In the end, what plot must do is twist our hearts in some way. It must change us. It must make us realize that we are alive.”

When one considers what has ensured that Margaret Millar’s mysteries have endured, it seems possible that one explanation lies here.

Her stories do aim to twist their readers’ hearts.

2017-07-26T13:51:50+00:00

4 Comments

  1. Melwyk August 19, 2017 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    I am so glad that Margaret Millar is finally getting the attention she deserves. Such a great writer, and so enjoyable. I love your excerpts and how they show the small twists of language and attention that characterize her writing.

    • Buried In Print August 24, 2017 at 9:56 am - Reply

      It was your posts about some of her early works that landed her on my TBR list to begin with, Melwyk. Then, Soho made it easy!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings August 19, 2017 at 8:59 am - Reply

    Millar is getting such good press at the moment wherever I look! I shall definitely have to read her!

    • Buried In Print August 24, 2017 at 9:57 am - Reply

      It’ll happen eventually. You’re into a lot of other reading projects at the moment, I know!

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