Many of Margaret Millar’s characters have had an escape, often in the face of difficulty. Robert has achieved the ultimate escape – he has disappeared – and readers wonder whether that was deliberate or accidental, malicious or ambitious.
“The world of Robert’s maps was nice and flat and simple. It had areas for people and areas for monsters. What a shock it is to discover the world is round and the areas merge and nothing separates the monsters and ourselves; that we are all whirling around in space together and there isn’t even a graceful way of falling off.”
Robert has not fallen off gracefully; in fact, the bulk of the novel is preoccupied with the matter of whether or not Robert will be declared dead by the courts.
He has been gone for a year now and those left behind, including his wife and his mother, are nearly desperate for closure.
They disagree, however, on what kind of closure they require. After all: “Knowledge can be a dreadful thing.”
And closure is intimately related to the idea of enclosure. Enclosure and borders.
To the idea of who remains in a territory and who has exited it (whether spirtually or territorially).
To the idea of who belongs, who is an interloper.
These matters are relevant and timely, particularly as they revolve around the southern border of the United States, territories divided into American and Mexican.
This novel – like others Margaret Millar wrote – is set squarely in California.
“The house at 3117 Ocotillo street was built in the California mission style, with tiled roof and thick adobe walls and an archway leading into a courtyard. The archway was decorated with ceramic tiles and from the top of it hung a miniature merry-go-round of brass horses that twitched and pranced and chimed against each other when the wind blew.”
But more important than the setting is the proximity to the borders.
“’We have no wetbacks here,’ Estivar said sharply. Later Estivar told Devon that the deputy was a very ignorant man because the term wetbacks, mojados, was applicable only in Texas where the U.S.-Mexican border was the Rio Grande River; here, in California, where the border was marked by miles of barbed-wire fence, the illegal entrants were properly called alambres, wires.”
Robert’s ranching business has relied upon a certain permeability to the border, despite the prejudices surrounding life south of it. Estivar manages the venture – and has taken on a more central role in the past year – and could not staff the ranch without the migrant workers, who are also essential to this story.
“The Tijuana-San Diego border is said to be the busiest in the world, twenty million people a year. This averages out to fifty-four thousand a day, but in actual fact weekday traffic is much lighter and weekend traffic much heavier. Between a Friday afternoon and a Sunday night three hundred thousand people or more travel between the two countries. Numbers alone present a very serious problem to law enforcement agencies. There are also other factors. Mexican laws differ from U.S. laws, enforcement in many areas is inconsistent, bribery of officials is a general practice, policemen are few and usually poorly trained.”
The conflicts which develop around the border management (or, mismanagement) and the question of corruption (on both sides of the border, regardless of the more prevalent concerns) contribute to the novel’s quiet suspense.
Even the characters who appear – at first, anyway – to be furthest removed from the conflict are tense and uneasy.
“Like an animal that had sensed danger in its sleep, Mrs. Osborne awakened abruptly and completely. Her opening eyes were alert, ready to spot an enemy, her voice distinct, ready to challenge one: ‘What are you doing here?’”
The mundane darkness remains Margaret Millar’s ultimate fascination. This quote could be pulled from every novel of hers which I have read: “The rest of us have monsters too, but we must call them by other names, or pretend they don’t exist . . .”
Monsters by other names populate Margaret Millar’s fictional worlds. And our everyday worlds.
Which makes for good reading, of course.
Have you been meeting monsters on the page in your reading recently?