Margaret Millar’s An Air that Kills (1957; 2016)

Because so many of Margaret Millar’s novels consider married couples – often at the point in which the relationship is strained, if not fractured – one wonders about her relationship with Ken Millar (better known as Ross MacDonald, who also wrote mysteries).

Millar An Air that KillsDid they squabble like Esther and Ron do at the beginning of An Air that Kills? “Esther had been going in for scenes lately, picking at the past like a bird at a sale loaf of bread, dislodging a crumb here, a crumb there.”

Here, again, Margaret Millar’s use of language is playful. But it is also a product of its time.

“Until tonight Turee had always considered Thelma as something of a birdbrain. He now began to realize how cleverly Thelma had outmaneuvered him into the role of custodian of the secret. It was like finding himself custodian of a fissionable mass of uranium; if he didn’t get rid of some of it, the whole thing might blow up in his face. The problem, then, was to unload it a little at a time, with due respect for its explosive powers.”

In 1950s America, men called women birdbrains. People were concerned about uranium. And there are broader societal patterns and prejudices afoot as well, although most often rooted in the characters’ perspectives (which makes the works more inviting for present-day readers, rather than it seeming to be the author’s viewpoint as well).

Not all – not even very many – 0f Margaret Millar’s women are birdbrains. Indeed, Esther is not. “She’s too damned bright for her own good. And too honest to hide it. No wonder she and Ron have some bad times.” (This is Turee again: he can’t deliver a compliment when it comes to women.)

And even the birdbrains are not simple. Thelma, for instance, contains many Thelmas.

Part of her is a daydreamer, apparently, who “fed her mediocrity with meaty chunks of dreams until it was fat beyond her own recognition”. She was a “woman equipped with great psychic powers”.

Another part is Harry’s wife, and that Thelma is a  “short, placid, pleasant-looking woman in her early thirties”, an “excellent cook”, a “skillful housekeeper”, and “incapable of originating any plans or ideaas”.

Yet another part is a “femme fatale” with an interest in “’girl stuff” but she “was no girl”.

And, then, there is the Thelma who had a goal in mind and pursued it “with single-minded determination”, with “not a trace of moral misgiving”.

That’s where it gets interesting. Not just with Thelma, but whenever there is trouble, rooted in somene’s single-minded pursuit of a goal.

‘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.

For me, an added pleasure was discovering that this story was set in Canada, north of (and in) Toronto; the death occurs near a hunting-and-fishing lodge. (Even though Margaret Millar was born west of Toronto, she set the bulk of her stories in the United States, but perhaps moving north for a vacation – er, holiday – was acceptable.)

Note: The cover image features a vintage copy, but I’m reading one of several volumes in a reprint series from Syndicate (Soho Press); when you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image, which you can glimpse in my posts about Wives and Lovers and Beast In View. Next, talk of The Listening Walls.



  1. […] same sort which created such a tight net in Margaret Millar’s other mysteries (particularly An Air That Kills and Wives and Lovers), there is a sense of sprawl in this  story, framed by the setting and […]

  2. Naomi March 23, 2017 at 11:16 am - Reply

    I often wonder that about books I read – are the characters based on themselves? their family members? It’s especially fun to wonder about when it involves married couples. The only problem is, I always want to KNOW after the wondering is over.

    • Buried In Print March 27, 2017 at 11:25 am - Reply

      Maybe the renewed interest in Margaret Millar’s fiction will lead to someone writing a biography: that will resolve the curiosity!

  3. Brian Busby March 20, 2017 at 5:47 am - Reply

    My favourite of the nine Millars I’ve read to date. I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a pristine first edition a couple of decades ago at at Toronto Goodwill, which saved me from having to buy the IPL edition you’ve shown. On the other hand, I remembered the cover, which had me wondering when the floating body was going to turn up. I don’t think I spoil anything by revealing that it doesn’t!

    • Buried In Print March 27, 2017 at 11:25 am - Reply

      Do you think it’s the Ontario-setting which added some appeal for you too? That’s a great find! The cover is interesting, because it’s as though the story revolves around that image but never lands on it exactly. Near the beginning, one of the buddies is looking out over the darkened bay and there is talk about what can’t be seen between the surface of the water, then that young girl finds a plaid cap on the beach (but plaid, not checked), and there is a lot of water language throughout (words used to describe other situations which also fit for describing water)…but no floating body!

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'