Margaret Millar’s mysteries are being brought back into print by Soho Syndicate. The Master at Her Zenith volume is comprised of five of her well-known books, including the Edgar-winning Beast in View.
Throughout, her interest in psychology is evident. Both she and her characters are fascinated by detail. And the emotions which often erupt in response.
For instance, consider the emotions simmering beneath the surface of this momentary frustration in Vanish in an Instant.
“Neither of the women made any move to take Meecham’s hat or coat, so he laid them across a chair. He was a little irritated because he was sure that the omission on their part was more than a lapse in manners; it was an unconscious expression of their real feeling toward him. He wondered again why Mrs. Hamilton had invited him in for coffee, and why he had accepted against his will.”
This kind of acuity is present in the other mysteries in this omnibus as well. It’s not enough that Meecham’s irritation is noted, but he examines the source of it, teases out the quiet and deadly judgements.
And even in just a few sentences, she is prepared to have a character acknowledge their own inconsistencies. For as irritated as Meecham may be, his actions suggest otherwise. He didn’t want to go for coffee, didn’t want to be subjected to this kind of reluctant tolerance on Mrs. Hamilton’s part, but he did so nonetheless.
There is a place for contradictions in Margaret Millar’s fiction. “A lot of things that can be proved are not true, and a lot of things that are true can’t be proved.”
And her idea of truth is complex. “The truth lay somewhere between the two extremes like an uncharted island between two shores.”
Which is not to say that the suspense is all cerebral. Blood is spilled.
“Why he had blood all over his clothes, same as you had. They say he’s a nice young man, no record or anything. What amazes me is the amount of blood in a person, it’s simply amazing.”
And occasionally there is a surprising scene, sketched quickly and succinctly.
“They weren’t snowmen. One of them was a lady, with a pink ruffled apron tied around her lumpy waist and a bandana covering her head to hide its baldness. One of her charcoal eyes had fallen out of its melting socket. She had a witch’s nose made out of a carrot and a moist-beet mouth, and stuck in her chest was a long dripping icicle that gleamed in the light like a stiletto with a jeweled handle. The snow-lady seemed to be aware of the wound: her blurred beet-mouth was anguished, and her single eye stared helplessly into the night.”
The emphasis, however, remains on her characters’ psychology rather than their wounds.
“Motion, change, speed, they were essential to Virginia. She should always be on a passing train, one that went round and round the world and never stopped.”
And, in the process, Margaret Millar uses language and imagery deftly to create a mood and enrich scenes.
“Her head was too large for her body and emphasized by thick brown hair that was now burning itself out like a grass-fire and showing streaks of ashes.”
In a room, straight chairs are “lined up against the wall like mute and motionless prisoners”, a woman’s “cry of surprise hung in the air a moment like a question mark of smoke and then disintegrated” and another woman’s control “was slipping down like a zipper under too much pressure”.
These little touches make reading Margaret Millar’s suspense a pleasure to read.
Note: The image for the vintage copy of Vanish in an Instant was discovered on “The Dusty Bookcase: A Casual Exploration of Canada’s Suppressed, Ignored and Forgotten Literature)” in a review well worth reading for Millar fans. Tomorrow’s review will feature the copy I’m reading, one of the reprinted volumes from Syndicate (Soho Press); when you line up the seven spines on your bookshelf, they will complete a suitably menacing/domestic image. How could Margaret Millar fans resist?
Have you read any of Margaret Millar’s mysteries? Do you enjoy other vintage mystery writers?