I have quickly become very fond of Margaret Millar, which is why I decided to make her books an integral part of my 2012 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. Only Gladys Mitchell and Ellery Queen appear more frequently on my list of books to read. I decided to get the challenge underway by starting with Millar, and soon settled on The Devil Loves Me (1942). It is the third and last of Millar’s books starring Paul Prye. This is my first book read under the theme Devil Take the Hindmost.
Paul is about to get married to Miss Nora Kathleen Shane, and the ceremony is taking place in the ever-so-exotic locale of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. However, the wedding is delayed when one of the guests, Jane Stevens, drops from atropine poisoning. Paul then discovers an anonymous letter addressed to him. Part of it goes thus: I have always been intrigued by the funereal aspect of weddings and the hymeneal aspect of funerals. It is high time someone combined the two.
Jane fortunately survives the poisoning attempt, but the question remains: who tried to poison her? Was she the intended victim? After some investigating, the police decide Jane’s brother Duncan was the intended victim all along, but he conveniently disappears, only to turn up the next day at the front door, dead. He apparently fell down a set of stairs and cracked the back of his head open. But a lack of bruising and a bruise on the dead man’s chin convinces the police that they are actually dealing with murder. From that point, the hunt is on…
Or is it? In my first two encounters with Millar, Fire Will Freeze and How Like an Angel, I marvelled at Millar’s ability to construct characters. The Devil Loves Me does not deliver at all in this respect—the characters simply get all muddled up and are rather unmemorable. Sadly, this includes Paul Prye, who for a detective does remarkably little detective work.
Another remarkably disappointing aspect is the setting. As a Canadian, I really expected Margaret Millar to portray our country a little better than this. Toronto doesn’t really come through with its vibrant, Canadian identity—if the city’s name was withheld, I would have been willing to bet the mystery took place anywhere between San Francisco and New York (with the natural exception of Cincinnati). In Fire Will Freeze, Millar masterfully captured the harshness of a Québec winter—here, there’s nothing to really set this apart as a mystery with a Canadian setting.
The mystery… is unremarkable. It’s easy to solve and I was really hoping for something a bit better from Millar. The worst part about it is how bland Paul Prye is: he delivers exposition every once in a while, gives you Fun Poisoning Tip #271, disappears for a bit, and then solves the case, while the inspector in charge stares awkwardly at the women and philosophizes about a wet leaf that sticks to his coat.
But this is Margaret Millar, folks! Surely there has to be something here worth noting! And indeed there is: the humour. This book works well as a humorous novel. It certainly isn’t the best I’ve ever read, and certainly not the first I’d recommend. But there definitely are great moments: I particularly love one character waking up in complete darkness, whose drunken ravings (I seem to have a fixation on those) decide that he has woken up in Hell and that there is no time. Upon striking a match, he sees geometric figures everywhere that look like boxes, and he reasonably concludes: “So mathematics is at the bottom of everything, after all. I don’t dare tell anyone this. It will revolutionize the revolution. I will be burned as a witch. I will go home, and I will never tell anyone anything about this place.”
But the humorous angle, appreciated as it is, never consistently attains the brilliance of the mordant humour in Fire Will Freeze. And that seems to be the general theme of this book. There is potential everywhere— even the inspector’s philosophizing about a wet leaf that sticks to his coat has a vivid sort of imagery behind it. But everything feels very rushed and immature. Millar had yet to fully develop her skills as a writer, and it shows. But it also foreshadows the brilliance that was yet to flow from her pen.