Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Margaret Millar’s A Stranger in My Grave (1960)

Here, the figurative language of Millar’s 1950s novels (like Vanish in an Instant and  Wives and Lovers) is replaced by a cleaner style which often focuses on extremes.

Millar Stranger in My Grave“But Fielding’s pity, like his love and even his hate, was a variable thing, subject to changes in the weather, melting in the summer, freezing in the winter, blowing away in a high wind. Only by a miracle did it survive at all.”

Instead she directs readers’ attention to specific kinds of extremes: inequities and injustices.

From the beginning, Daisy Harker’s concerns are dismissed as the anxieties of an unfulfilled woman.

“’All I can do is assure you that the matter is, to everyone else but Mrs. Harker, quite trivial. There are no lives at stake, no money, no great issue.’
He was wrong: all three were at stake. But he hadn’t the imagination or the desire to see it.”

Ironically, the speaker here, Steve Pinata, is often judged unfairly himself, his ethnicity not immediately identifiable (indeed, his parentage is uncertain, which suits this story in particular) but he certainly is not white.

“Few whites ventured out on Opal Street after dark. This was his part of the city, his and Camilla’s, and it had nothing to do with Daisy’s part. Grease Alley, some of the cops called it, and when he was feeling calm and secure, he didn’t blame them. Many of the knives used in brawls were greased.”

Although he is initially unable to recognize the prejudices which limit Daisy Harker’s ability to resolve her concerns, Pinata does pursue the information she requires and he provides to her what relief he can. In short, Daisy cannot remember what happened on a certain day and believes her existence depends upon this lost information.

“Perhaps a very special event had taken place in the world on December 2, 1955, and once the event was recalled to her, she would remember her reactions to it; it would become the peg on which she could hang the rest of the day, hat and coat and dress and sweater and, finally, the woman who fitted into them.”

It is not her imagination. Not simply her refusal to play the role of “happy innocent” which she believes her mother and husband require of her. “Any good marriage involves a certain amount of playacting,” Daisy observes.

Expectations of wives are key to this story, and key to its resolution (but in a quiet way). “Mrs. Fielding was too subtle to say any of this outright, but the implication was clearly made: Daisy had to be a super wife because she couldn’t be a mother.”

She, like other women in Margaret Millar’s stories, seems paralyzed by her inability to meet the demands on her as a wife. But she recognizes that these expecations are not fair or just.

She presses against the boundaries, longs for a certain kind of escape (as was also the case for characters in Wives and Lovers and An Air that Kills).

“She wanted to be a train, a huge, beautiful, shiny train, which never had to stop for fuel or to let people off or on. It just kept on going, blowing its big whistle, frightening everyone off the tracks.”

Pinata faces a similar kind of paralysis in the face of prejudice, and he has questions about his identity too.

In the following passage, Daisy’s mother issues a blatant warning, a tidy summary of the racism simmering beneath stories like these (present too, in Beast in View and The Listening Walls).

“’Tolerance is one thing. Foolishness is another.’ There was a curious rasp in Mrs. Fielding’s voice, as if her fury, which had been denied admittance into words, had broken in through the back door of her larynx. ‘You know nothing about such people. They’re cunning, treacherous. You’re a babe in the woods. If you let him, he’ll use you, cheat you—’
‘Where did you learn so much about a man you’ve never even seen?’
‘I don’t have to see him. They’re all alike. You must put a stop to this relationship before you find yourself in serious trouble.’”

Daisy is a “good girl”, caught in a situation which a “good girl” is ill-equipped to handle, but she uses her determination and her intelligence (also her husband’s resources) to get to the bottom of things.

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.

This type of passage (complete with meander-y observations in parentheses, which would be playful if the conversation itself weren’t so tedious and demanding for the participants) reveals the author’s attention to detail and fascination with psychology and interpersonal relations and conflicts.

“Mrs. Fielding had talked nearly all the way home while Daisy watched the dreary landscape (where were the green hills?) and the slate-gray sea (had it ever been blue?) and the barren dunes (barren, barren, barren). It wasn’t the end of the world, Mrs. Fielding had said, count blessings, look at silver linings. But Mrs. Fielding herself was so disturbed she couldn’t go on driving. She was forced to stop at a little café by the sea, and the two women had sat for a long time facing each other across a greasy, crumb-covered table. Mrs. Fielding kept right on talking, raising her voice against the crash of waves on pilings and the clatter of dishes from the kitchen.”

The next three volumes promise angels and fiends and monsters: perhaps ordinary women will take a back seat to their activities.

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