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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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.