She won the Edgar for it in 1956: Best Novel. (If you are looking for new reading lists, the Edgar Award’s site is filled with temptations.)
And it was the first of three, later awards being given for The Fiend in 1965 and Beyond This Point Are Monsters in 1971. (She would receive The Grand Master Award in 1983.)
You might think the three books are linked, a trilogy of sorts: beasts and fiends and monsters.
But the focus of Margaret Millar’s mysteries is the psychology of it all.
The emphasis is on ordinary two-legged creatures: dentists and artists, managers and widows.
“Miss Clarvoe’s age had very little to do with chronology. She was a middle-aged woman because she had had nothing to keep her young. She was the chosen victim, not only of Evelyn Merrick, but of life itself.”
The characters are not defined by substantial detail, but nor are they thin and recognizable tropes. (I’ve only read three Daphne duMaurier works, but longed for the women to be a little more complicated: Millar’s novels afford this opportunity.)
Miss Clarvoe is a woman living alone in an apartment, who might have been in a Barbara Pym novel or an Elizabeth Taylor story.
In fact, many of Margaret Millar’s characters strike me this way.
(Consider: “Let Verna find it out for herself; she had a whole closetful of punctured dreams, but there was always room for one more.”)
Even Evelyn Merrick. Who seems, at least at the beginning, to be the beast in question.
But, then, everyone has their troubles. “All troubles are interesting. Perhaps that’s why we have them, to keep ourselves from being bored to death. Go on, tell me yours.”
The source of trouble is often just as innocuous. “Things had begun to repeat themselves: new situations reminded him of past situations, and people he met for the first time were exactly like other people he’d known for years. Nothing was new anymore.” (Yes, there are male characters in her novels, but even when they are at the heart of the story, the mystery seems to be rooted in the female experience, in the characters surrounding him.)
But it develops into something more dramatic. And occasionally, this development creates a fracture.
“A plate breaks and you throw it away. A person breaks and all you can do is pick up the pieces and try to put them together the best way you can.”
Margaret Millar’s mysteries consider the broken pieces. They delight in the sharp edges but also the as-yet-undetected fissures.
In its day, A Beast In View would have been quite shocking. But the value of the work is as much about the characterization as it is about the resolution, which is more likely to provoke surprise than shock with present-day readers (and perhaps not even that, in seasoned suspense and crime readers).
The cover image features the omnibus edition I’m reading, one of several volumes in a reprint series from Syndicate (Soho Press). Previous posts have considered Vanish in an Instant and Wives and Lovers and, next week, talk of An Air that Kills.
When you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image. My set is incomplete, but still charming. Do you have any spine-art on your bookshelves? What book(s) have you added to your collection just for their looks?