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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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.