Although some of the characters in the Margaret Millar mysteries I have read answer their own phones, many answer other people’s phones instead: the telephones of older or more privileged relatives or those of their bosses. There’s even a switchboard operator in the mix, along with a woman better known for not answering calls at all (being under the in-flu-ence much of the time).
Communication matters and The Listening Walls opens with an overhead conversation. Consuela is a maid in a Mexico City hotel (with the finest drinking water available), nestled in a supply closet, bunking down on a stack of clean towels.
From her perch, she can hear everything that goes on in Suite 404, and the prejudice of the two American women staying there eventually allows Consuela open access to the room and their conversations, so convinced are they that their attendant would not be able to understand English, despite her work in the tourist industry.
But Consuela is not a stand-in for the readers’ attentions; she is simply one woman whose proximity to the women’s September-holidaying is significant.
At first, the pair is something of a blur: neither Wilma nor Amy is overly friendly, and each has her own frustrations, which add a degree of urgency to their vacation.
Each woman takes on a distinct persona when one of them dies in the hotel; the other is hospitalized and then unexpectedly leaves Mexico to search for the independence she believes has eluded her in her life to date.
“The American lady paused at the railing and looked down before she jumped.
She did not look down. She knelt and prayed.
She didn’t hesitate a moment, just ran across the balcony and dived over.
She screamed as she fell.
She didn’t make a sound.
She carried in her arms a silver box.
Her arms were empty, flung wide to the heavens in supplication.
She turned over and over in the air.
She fell straight down and head first, like an arrow.
The eyewitnesses all agreed on one point: when she struck the pavement she died instantly.”
The question of perspective is central in Margaret Millar’s mysteries and even the most casual observation of a secondary character reveals her fascination with psychology.
“You see? There’s a logical explanation for everything but [he] just won’t believe it. He’s practically irrational on the subject of family. I don’t know why, and I prefer not to think about it since there’s nothing I can do about it.”
This is Helene, the sister-in-law of Amy Kellogg, looking for a logical explanation for why Amy would send a letter from Mexico City explaining that she would be taking an extended leave. From her life, essentially.
Helene purports to be trying to defuse her husband’s concerns, speaking to Amy’s husband about her own husband’s doubts, which have ballooned to the point where he has hired a private investigator.
This is the first time I’ve met a PI on the pages of a Margaret Millar mystery: Elmer Dodd, “experienced in many things and expert in none”.
It’s Elmer who posits that Amy’s disappearance isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. “A lady gets bored or disgusted or both, and off she goes on a bit of a wingding. When the wingding is over, she comes home. The neighbours think she’s been on a holiday, so nobody’s any the wiser. Except maybe her. Wingdings can be rough on a lady.”
If you’re wincing over ‘wingdings’, you’re not alone. Rupert Kellogg recoiled from it too. “He coughed over the unfamiliar word as if it had stuck in his throat like a fishbone.”
In some cases, characters are reduced to stereotypes (“Did he quarrel frequently with his wife? Was he a lush or a chaser?”) but the emphasis for the most part is on human foibles.
And, on logical explanations, too. Even though they are sometimes unsavoury.
“It was a street of conformity, where identical houses and the future were planned with equal care, and even if everything went wrong, the master plan remained in effect – keep up appearances, clip the hedges, mow the lawn, so that no one will suspect that there’s a third mortgage and that Mother’s headaches are caused by martinis, not migraine.”
This question of keeping up appearances creates all kinds of opportunities for deception. “Nobody lies the way he’s lied unless he has something to hide.”
Indeed, there are a lot of liars in Magaret Millar’s fiction. But only some of them are murderers.
Have you been spending your time on the page with any notable liars of late?
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 also glimpse in my posts about Wives and Lovers and Beast In View. My posts about Vanish In An Instant and An Air That Kills feature vintage covers. More Margaret Millar to come!