The Magazine

The Mystery of Margaret Millar

Why are her novels out of print?

Apr 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 29 • By JON L. BREEN
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The Couple Next Door

Collected Short Mysteries

by Margaret Millar

Crippen & Landru, 252 pp., $29

UNDER THE PSEUDONYM ROSS MACDONALD, Kenneth Millar became a crime fiction icon. But his Canadian wife Margaret (1915-1994) entered the field first and, through most of the 1940s and 1950s, was the more celebrated.

Though she vocally denied the claim, some critics believe she was her husband's superior as a novelist. A new collection of her short fiction, The Couple Next Door, with an excellent scholarly introduction by Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan, invites a rediscovery of her work, tracing the arc of her career with two novellas by the competent but derivative neophyte of the early 1940s and four short stories by the more subtle, assured, and psychologically acute author of her mature work.

While Millar was good from the beginning, no reader of her earliest mysteries would put her in the Ross Macdonald class. The Invisible Worm (1941) and The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942) established her as a farceur in the tradition of Phoebe Atwood Taylor (aka Alice Tilton) and Craig Rice. Her amateur detective, psychiatrist Dr. Paul Prye, is represented in The Couple Next Door in "Mind over Murder" (1942), which, despite a promising premise--murder among an assorted group of neurotics at an island Colony for Mental Hygiene in Lake Huron--is not a particularly strong story. Though probably intended for the prestigious and well-paying slick magazine American, which featured a short mystery novel in every issue, it wound up instead in a pulp, Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine. American's editors may also have had a shot at the recently discovered "Last Day in Lisbon" (1943), a World War II spy potboiler, nicely enough written in uncharacteristic first-person, but minor, Millar. It landed in another pulp, Five-Novels Monthly.

The Devil Loves Me (1942) marks a transition in Millar's work. Seeming impatient with lightweight, cozy comedies, she pairs Prye with a much more intriguing and serious professional, Inspector Sands, a Toronto policeman who specializes in middle-and upper-class murder. Prye's wedding is interrupted by the poisoning of one of the bridesmaids. She survives, but murders follow. For all their bright dialogue, the characters are not especially vivid, and many readers will anticipate the murderer, either through guesswork (based on a time-honored misdirection) or at least one very fair clue. While one element of the solution makes the Canadian background essential, the story could take place in any North American city. (In a reflection of how times have changed, one character remarks, "We hang everybody in Canada.") While amateur and pro combine to solve the case, Sands gets the final curtain call, and Prye will never appear again.

Millar would return to the wacky, farcical mystery occasionally. Fire Will Freeze (1944), in which stranded bus passengers in Quebec ski country take refuge from a blizzard in an old house occupied by an insane elderly woman and her nurse, is reminiscent of the work of Constance and Gwenyth Little, Australian-American sisters who specialized in comic whodunits. Other forays into comedy included Rose's Last Summer (1952), with a clever plot based on the tax regulations of the time, and The Murder of Miranda (1979), the second novel about Chicano lawyer Tom Aragon. But Millar's lasting reputation would not be built on her humorous books.

Impatience with series characters may partially account for Millar's failure to establish a "brand name" commensurate with the quality of her work. Inspector Sands would appear in only two more novels, Wall of Eyes (1943) and The Iron Gates (1945), plus the fine title story of the new collection, "The Couple Next Door" (1954), which finds the Canadian cop in California retirement. Millar's novels did without a continuing sleuth for over 30 years, until the not-especially-memorable Aragon made three appearances between 1977 and 1982.

The Iron Gates, a sober psychological study with a well-worked-out puzzle and complex character relationships, gained Millar a Hollywood contract along with increased stature in the suspense fiction field. Lucille Morrow, second wife of Dr. Andrew Morrow, has always had a distant and uncomfortable relationship with her two stepchildren, now well into their 20s but still living in the family home. Lucille is haunted by dreams of her husband's first wife Mildred who, we gradually come to suspect, may have been murdered. When a mysterious small parcel is delivered to Lucille, she vanishes from the house and eventually lands in a mental institution. According to Nolan, Jack Warner's eagerness to film the novel was dampened when both Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck turned the project down, not wanting to play a character who dies well before the end.

After three novels more mainstream than criminous, Millar returned to detection with Do Evil in Return (1950), about Dr. Charlotte Keating, a general practitioner in an unnamed California coastal city based on Santa Barbara, where the Millars then lived. Having an affair with a married lawyer while treating his neurotic wife as a patient, the doctor becomes involved in the death of a young pregnant woman and is romantically pursued by the cop on the case. The novel is another triumph, with a superb build-up of suspense, including an evocation of the Santa Ana winds to rival Raymond Chandler's, and a well-prepared surprise delivered in a chilling denouement.

Beast in View, the Edgar Allan Poe Award winner for best novel of 1955, is superbly done but at a disadvantage with latter-day readers because the surprise solution, then fresh, has been reused so often since. But the three novels that followed represent the pinnacle of Millar's achievement and retain their powerful impact more than 40 years after publication.

In The Listening Walls (1959), Millar brings off a trick that is rarely attempted and even more rarely accomplished: withholding the final surprise to the very last line of the novel. Two San Francisco women in their 30s, unpleasant divorcée Wilma Wyatt and her friend Amy Kellogg, are staying in a Mexico City hotel on what seems an ill-advised vacation. When Wilma falls to her death from a balcony in an apparent suicide, Amy's husband Rupert ostensibly brings her home. But Amy disappears from sight, and her brother Gill becomes convinced Rupert has done away with her. The novel is a psychological puzzle-box, somewhat like the currently popular trend in movies like Swimming Pool and Memento, the difference being that, in the end, Millar reveals the truth without ambiguity.

The Mexican and American backgrounds are effectively rendered, and the psychology of the characters, however deceptively it is presented, is ultimately sound.

By the author's own account in introducing a 1983 reprint, A Stranger in My Grave (1960) began with an idea she had jotted down in her notebook: "A woman dreams of visiting a cemetery and seeing engraved on a granite tombstone her name, the date of her birth and the date of her death four years previously. Write your way out of that one, kiddo."

When Daisy Fielding Harker, troubled wife of a successful real estate broker, has the dream, she goes against the wishes of her overprotective husband and mother to hire bail bondsman and private eye Steve Pinata to help her find out what happened to her on December 2, 1955, the death date on the tombstone. Eventually, they find the real-life tombstone, which bears a different name but the same date of death. Characteristically, Millar shifts the viewpoint from character to character, often in unexpected ways, as the mystery is gradually worked out, with the final surprise again withheld to the very last line.

One of the standard elements of California private-eye fiction is the nutty religious cult. Millar's variation on the theme in How Like an Angel (1962) stands as one of the best. Joe Quinn, compulsive gambler and licensed private investigator, is fleeing debts in Reno when he takes refuge for the night at the mountain compound of the Brothers and Sisters of the Tower of Heaven, a shrinking but devout fellowship that has successfully cut itself off from the sinful influences of the outside world. The denizens have taken names like Sisters Blessing, Contrition, and Glory of the Ascension; Brothers Crown of Thorns, Tongue of Prophets, and Light of the Infinite. Initially, the effect borders on the comic, but Millar takes them seriously--not in terms of believing their dogma, but in convincing the reader that they believe it.

Their leader, known as the Master, may be mad or deluded, but he's no charlatan. At great risk to herself, Sister Blessing uses $120, sent by her son in Chicago and squirreled away in violation of the sect's vow of poverty, to hire Quinn to go to the Central Valley town of Chicote and find a man named Patrick O'Gorman. Quinn takes the money and, somewhat to his own surprise, carries out the assignment, learning O'Gorman was a respected local citizen who died (his wife says by accident, but the police believe by murder) several years before. The investigation, beyond his initial charge, involves Quinn more and more deeply, and the rest of the complex narrative shifts between the cult's headquarters, the small town, and other California locales. Once again, the truth is gradually revealed, with one last shock withheld for the final lines of the novel.

In How Like an Angel, the balance of elements--psychological insight, romance, suspense--achieves near perfection in the finest novel of Millar's career.

In these three novels, Millar's themes, techniques, and concerns resemble her husband's. All three involve upper-middle-class California suburbanites and include private-eye characters. In the last two, the private eyes are the "leads" and, as in a Lew Archer case, the investigation in the present has its roots in a crime a few years in the past. Though Macdonald's books were written from Archer's first-person viewpoint, Millar uses third person, and her perfect command permits her to change course in surprising directions without any loss of narrative impetus.

The manipulation of the reader, with a gradual and selective release of information by the author, is obvious in retrospect--and, sometimes, as it is going on. When the case is put in terms of a private eye's investigation, as in most of How Like an Angel, the manipulation is less apparent. Millar's control of her characters and story elements is so sure-footed that occasional lapses (too much exposition in dialogue, use of overheard conversations, unlikely confidences between characters) are easily overlooked.

Millar continued to produce distinguished work and, unlike some writers with long careers, suffered no steep decline in quality. The Fiend (1964), about a sympathetically observed pedophile, demonstrates the effectiveness of low-key, understated, inexplicit menace, the threat of violence and horror rather than its graphic depiction. The situation of a little girl with more interest in the neighbors than her own family was foreshadowed in the paranormal short story, "The People Across the Canyon" (1962), collected in The Couple Next Door.

In Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970), longtime trial-watcher Millar introduced substantial courtroom action into her work for the first time--a probate action to declare dead a missing fruit-grower who may have been murdered--and delivered another of her patented surprise finishes. After the three novels featuring Tom Aragon and the nonseries Banshee (1983), Millar returned to the courtroom for her final book-length work. By this time, her husband had died after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, and Millar herself was legally blind as a result of glaucoma. But Spider Webs (1986), viewing a murder trial from the points of view of various participants, is an outstanding novel and a fine wind-up to her career.

Millar's emphasis on the finishing surprise reflects her admiration for Agatha Christie, who, in turn, cited Millar as one of her favorite contemporary mystery writers. In 1979, Millar was quoted as saying, "I consider Christie an excellent plotter. When I read Witness for the Prosecution, I knew she really had a twisted little mind. I wished I had thought of it." In a 1957 interview, she sounded more like one of today's writers who chafe at Christie comparisons: "I happen to be able to write rings around her and she happens to be able to situate rings around me."

The fact is that Millar, like Christie, plays games with the reader. She never lies but is selective in what she tells--and when she tells it, including following the thoughts of characters that have more on their minds than she reveals, and describing scenes in which one of the characters could be identified but isn't.

While both Millars had more on their minds than the puzzle, they recognized it as the element that made the detective novel a unique genre. They both had an allegiance, for all their interest in psychology and character development, to complex plotting and reader misdirection, providing fairly placed clues even in subgenres (the private-eye novel, the farcical mystery, the psychological study) that sometimes did without them.

Margaret Millar was favorably reviewed throughout her career, and was recognized by her peers with the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award in 1983. Still, her novels are out of print and she is less well known to present-day readers than she should be. Whether she was actually superior to her more famous husband is open to question: If I think so at the moment, rereading a Ross Macdonald or two might change me back again. But she clearly belongs with him in the top dozen North American mystery writers, and some enterprising publisher should get her novels back into print without delay.

A frequent contributor on mysteries to The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is winner of two Edgar awards.