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.