From the outset, The Fiend has a creepy element which readers hadn’t yet experienced in the fiction Margaret Millar had published theretofore.
“She was about nine. Having watched them all impartially now for two weeks, Charlie had come to like her the best.”
You’re afraid to ask, aren’t you: why does Charlie like her best.
“She wasn’t the prettiest, and she was so thin Charlie could have spanned her waist with his two hands, but there was a certain cockiness about her that both fascinated and worried him.”
She is not the quintessential victim. In fact, at least some of her appeal resides in her “cockiness”.
“When she tried some daring new trick on the jungle gym she seemed to be challenging gravity and the bars to try and stop her. If she fell—and she often did—she bounced up off the ground as naturally as a ball. Within five seconds she’d be back on the top bar of the jungle gym, pretending nothing had happened, and Charlie’s heart, which had stopped, would start to beat again in double time, its rhythm disturbed by relief and anger.”
EVen more of her appeal rests in her resilience.
But The Fiend is not only preoccupied with this little girl, the one who has drawn Charlie’s attention.
And it’s not only preoccupied with Charlie either, although Margaret Millar’s readers would expect attention to be paid to the psychology lurking behind the tenets of his story in particular.
“I’ve had foolish dreams about you, Charlie, but I’ve never kidded myself that I could turn on any lights for you when other people, even professionals, have failed. I can share your darkness, though, when you need me. I know what darkness is, I have some of my own.”
In fact, the most memorable aspects of this novel are those which stem from the characters which circle this pair: watched and watcher.
Here, at a careful distance, Margaret Millar observes the vulnerability and resilience of children in a broader sense.
Set aside the question of a potential predator observing a child from a distance for a moment; the damage inflicted by friends and neighbours on children they espouse to love is also note-worthy.
“Isn’t it funny how many times people don’t want to hurt you, but?” asks one woman in the story.
Children have some natural advantages in this world. “Children were subtle, they could see things grownups couldn’t. Their attention wasn’t divided between past and present, it was focused on the present.”
And they make some crucial alliances which strengthen their burgeoning selves. “I mean, like Mary Martha and me, we exchange our most innermost secrets. Did you ever have a friend like that?”
But they are also vulnerable on the domestic front, when caught in conflicts which swirl around them.
Unstable (or disintegrating) marriages pose a threat to both adults and children (decimated marriages too).
“’I think you’re jealous,’ Virginia said slowly. ‘I think you’re jealous of a nine-year-old girl.’
He let go of her wrists as if the accusation had suddenly paralyzed him. Then, with a sound of despair, he walked away into the living room. She stood motionless in the middle of the kitchen, listening to the rustle of Howard’s newspaper, the sighing of his leather chair as he sat down, and the rebellious beat of her own heart.”
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 this familiar scuffle to conceal the devastation.
“I’m speaking of what happens when people refuse to admit their own mistakes and take cover behind self-righteousness.”
And, as in every one of Margaret Millar’s mysteries, the commonplace habits of deception are key.
“It was better to feed him a lie he would swallow than a truth he would spit out.”
Margaret Millar can make her readers swallow some ugly stuff.
Even the bitter bits often leave you wanting more.
Is Margaret Millar on your TBR? Which one are you eyeing?
Have you been reading mysteries lately?