Exploring in the back country of Santa Barbara County California, Margaret Millar discovered a group of abandoned buildings on top of a ridge of the Santa Ynez mountains. The view was incredible: the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Ynez valley, Lake Cachuma, and the San Rafael mountains, along with a main lodge, out-buildings, and a tower.

collected-millar-mysteries-oneHer friend, George Hammond, said “So start your own”, when she said that she didn’t know anything about cults, and How Like an Angel is what issued from the idea that these buildings had been last occupied by a mystic and George Hammond’s challenge.

Readers discover the landscape for themselves when Quinn is dropped off at “nowhere”, having hitched a ride to San Felice.

The driver suggests that Quinn must be from the eastern United States, if he thinks 45 miles is a long way away. In California, that’s close by. Distance is something else: open space is commonplace.

So, here’s Quinn, 45 miles from his destination, with The Tower being the only source of food and drink nearby.

“It’s a — well, sort of a self-contained little community,” his driver explains.

Quinn is correct to jump to the idea of religion, but the fellow doesn’t share much information (partly because he’s never been there himself, but partly because Quinn is resisting the idea and the fellow has no intention of driving out of his way).

Even after Quinn arrives at the Tower, however, he remains unclear as to the community’s organization and key tenets.

  “When the sound of its engine died out, there was absolute silence. Not a bird chirped, not a branch swished in the wind. It was an experience Quinn had never had before and he wondered for a minute if he’d suddenly gone deaf from hunger and lack of sleep and the heat of the sun.
He had never much liked the sound of his own voice but it seemed very good to him then, he wanted to hear more, to spread it out and fill the silence.
‘My name is Joe Quinn. Joseph Rudyard Quinn, but I don’t tell anyone about the Rudyard. Yesterday I was in Reno. I had a job, a car, clothes, a girlfriend. Today I’m in the middle of nowhere with nothing and nobody.’”

The point: this community is isolated. The tower itself also hints at the idea of a hierarchy, a desire to reach towards the heavens, and a search for something deemed sacred. (Later, the tower takes on a more practical significance in the story.) But readers are meant to observe, above all, the sense of nothing-ness.

Closer to the end of the novel, Quinn’s observations remain much the same. (That’s ‘closer’ as defined by a reader who neither inhabits the east nor the west of the continent, but somewhere in the middle where there is very little nothing to be heard.)

“Nothing seemed to have changed since Quinn’s first visit. The cattle grazed in the pasture, tails to the wind; the goats were still tethered to the manzanita tree, and the sheep in their log pen stared incuriously at the car as it passed. Even the spot on the path where Quinn had met [someone] earlier in the day bore no traces of the encounter, no drops of blood, no footprints. Oak leaves and pine needles had drifted over it, and the dark orange flakes of madrone bark that looked like cinnamon. The forest had hidden its records as effectively as the sea.”

These circumstances are perfect for concealment, but How Like an Angel is about the process of shining a light into dark corners. Quinn is intelligent and curious; he tells himself to stop asking questions, but he yearns for the answers anyhow.

In the community established around The Tower, however, identities are slippery. People shed names and histories like second skins, having arrived at an opportunity for a fresh start. Quinn is intrigued by the relationships in the community, but although those remain significant, the setting (geographic and relational) serves to highlight other relationships which surface as he searches for answers.

Even though these relationshps are the 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 Quinn’s solitary journey, which shifts the focus just enough for a truly surprising ending.

Dusty and gritty, How Like an Angel explores new territory, searches for another kind of wilderness, but maintains the author’s interest in psychology and the strange intensity of intimate relationships and those in which other kinds of power dynamics play out.

There are two more Margaret Millar mysteries in this volume and I am currently reading The Fiend. What’s the last mystery that you read? Or, what’s the next one in your stack?