Friday, March 16, 2012

From a View to a Kill: A Discussion on Margaret Millar

Hello everybody and welcome to another special edition of At the Scene of the Crime!

I’m glad to announce the return of Jeffrey Marks to the blog today. If you’ll recall, Jeff joined me recently in a long discussion on Craig Rice (and I’ve since read his excellent biography, Who Was That Lady?). We both enjoyed collaborating and so we’ve been brainstorming ever since on ideas for a cheap sequel. Well, the sequel has arrived, but the topic of conversation is anything but cheap. Jeff has agreed to join me again to discuss the work of Margaret Millar—and who better to do so, since Jeff devotes an entire chapter to Millar in his book Atomic Renaissance?

I only got acquainted with Millar’s work last year, after many writers and bloggers collaborated in a conspiracy that transcended space and time to get me to read How Like an Angel. To put it briefly, I fell in love, and have since read two more of her books, which even at their lowest points did not dispel my enthusiasm. (That took some doing, mind you—The Devil Loves Me is one of those books that you forget very quickly, apart from some its funnier elements.)

My impression of Margaret Millar, before reading any of her work, had been of a pure “psychological suspense” author—someone who would write a 1000 page book set in a mental hospital, where most of the book takes place in a patient’s mind over a five-minute period before the patient kills one of the guards. But as I found out for myself, Millar was anything but that! She managed to write fairly-clued mysteries that can leave you guessing until the final sentence. Her characters are (usually) very good and her sense of humour is absolutely delightful. My favourite in Millar’s work thus far is in How Like an Angel, when Joe Quinn has a discussion with cult member Brother Crown of Thorns:

“We got to be saved from ourselves and the devil that’s in us. We all carry a devil around inside us gnawing our innards.”

“So that’s it. I thought my liver was acting up again.”

Come on, how can you not like an author with such a sense of humour?

Jeff, thanks a lot for joining me today!

***

Hello, Patrick. I’m happy to be back. I had such a good time the first time though!

I love Margaret Millar and her writing. It’s a shame that she’s not more well-known these days. When she was alive, she was by far the more well received half of her household (she was married to Ross Macdonald.) It wasn’t until the Lew Archer movies came out that he began to eclipse her works. It’s a real shame.

Another part of the issue might be that you really have no idea what you’re going to get when you pick up a Millar book. Some of her works are very funny while others, like The Beast in View or The Fiend are quite intensely serious.

I picked up my copy of The Fiend at the Las Vegas Bouchercon. They gave you a complimentary roll of nickels. I played slots with mine until I won $90, and I ran into the book room and spent all my money on that book. I don’t think I’m what Vegas wants in a gambler!

I first corresponded with Millar while working on the Craig Rice biography. Sadly, she passed away before I could meet her. She was supposed to attend a Bouchercon (I want to say Toronto), but couldn’t make it. She was one of a few authors who passed away while I was writing the Rice biography, and that led me to writing Atomic Renaissance, featuring Millar’s work along with 6 other women writers.

I understand you live in Margaret Millar’s home town?

***

That is correct—I live in the city of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada (you are probably aware by now that you omitted an “e” from the name in your book). Not only that, I actually went to the same high school as both Margaret Millar and her husband Ross Macdonald! The place, commonly known as KCI, was not among my favourite experiences. I only went to the school because it was the only one in the area with French Immersion, and I had been in the program for so long it was a shame not to finish it, even if the school was on the other side of town. I did not like the place at all, for not only was I socially outcast from the first day, but people were decidedly unpleasant while presenting a smiling front to the community and boasting about what a great school it was. This is the school in which the principal found it necessary to remind students that it is unacceptable to stand outside the cancer ward of the nearby hospital and mock the patients coming and going…

The building itself is changed of course, but I could certainly imagine many parts of the building surviving the 1930s intact. There are plenty of hallways with shoddy lighting which come complete with the world’s loudest echoes. I was in a part of the basement usually closed off to students one time, and it seemed like there had at one point been a shooting gallery there (though I wouldn’t take my word for it without more research). I don’t want to give the impression of a slummy school with knocked-out-windows in every classroom and with drug dealers at every corner (it’s every third corner at most)… but there are definitely places in the building that are less-than-cheerful by themselves. Now factor in an entire crowd of people that insists on socially excluding you, and you have my high school experience.

But enough about me—nothing I’ve read suggests that the Millars had a similar high school experience. In fact, Margaret was one of the brightest students, and as I found out through Tom Nolan’s biography of “Ross Macdonald”, her future husband was smitten with her but was very shy about it. Personally, I always want to find out more about my favourite authors. It’s fascinating to see how their personal experiences ended up affecting their fiction. Ross Macdonald, for instance, suffered both the loss of his parents and the loss of his child, and these themes keep cropping up throughout his work. It seems to me that Margaret had her own demons popping up in her fiction that she never quite abandoned. By the time she and her husband began a serious relationship in university, Margaret had lived through a rather turbulent period in her life which apparently included a mild schizophrenic episode and an attempted suicide!

***

I’m a big believer that authors are influenced by the things they hold dear and consider to be a part of themselves. Definitely, I would have to agree that Millar was interested in and fascinated by psychology. All of her later novels use it to some degree. To some degree I would agree that Ross Macdonald felt the same.  They both did seem to like those early years. I think some people have a wonderful time in high school, and others barely get through with it. They seemed to fall into the former category.

They had both had a history of soul-scarring troubles. As you said, Margaret had difficulties going back to her school years. Her husband had been passed around between relatives (something akin to Craig Rice’s experience); however, he seemed to indicate in his writings that there might have been some sexual abuse at an early age too. Then they lost their only child, who had been troubled too. Both of these people were ripe to write about psychology, which was an emerging field back then.

I don’t want you to think that Millar only wrote dark novels of psychological teeth-gnashing. She wrote some very amusing works as well. Rose’s Last Summer is incredibly light-hearted, especially when compared to The Fiend.

I’ve often wondered why she isn’t more read today. I have postulated that it might be because she did not have a series character (ala her husband’s Lew Archer) or because her work varied so much in tone.

***

Well, she did have Paul Prye at the start of her career, but The Devil Loves Me didn’t convince me of those stories’ qualities! Her finest works seem to be those that don’t have recurring characters, although there’s plenty of potential there. For instance, Joe Quinn could have been Margaret’s Lew Archer—he only appears in How Like An Angel.

I personally admire Margaret’s versatility and am not sure why it leads to a smaller fanbase— surely admiration for an author’s variety should trump a feeling of ease produced by having the same formula presented to you over and over again? It shouldn’t take more than ten books at the very most to figure out the Agatha Christie formula—with Millar, I can’t detect any formula! None of the three books I read was the same in tone or style. The Devil Loves Me was a relatively light comic story, Fire Will Freeze was full of very black humour, and How Like an Angel is a largely serious, rather hardboiled investigation. It takes until the final sentence to understand How Like an Angel. Fire Will Freeze has a somewhat arbitrary conclusion. The Devil Loves Me is a fairly routine mystery. The only thing common among these works is a nagging feeling of “something just isn’t right” (which is far more pronounced in the two later books). I think Margaret’s use of this general atmosphere and theme were highly effective.

***

She did have Paul Prye (not to be confused with Erle Stanley Gardner's Paul Pry) at the beginning of her career, but she dropped him fairly fast. I think any number of her characters could have been a series character, but that's not what she wanted.

I do think that readers (like most everyone) like their routines and recurring characters are one of those routines. That combined with the lack of movies made on her works likely made her fade faster than she should have.

One of the things I was most fascinated with in her work was her attempt to recreate the final scene from Ellery Queen's The French Powder Mystery where the culprit is revealed in the last words of the book. In addition to having an incredible situation, she added a layer of stylistic difficulty to the work. I found those in more than 1 book, but she rarely repeated anything she did.

***

Of course you make a good point on the idea of routine. John Dickson Carr had Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale; Agatha Christie had Poirot, Miss Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence. Ross Macdonald had Lew Archer. So obviously, the presence of a series character helps. But is that everything? I like a series detective as much as the next fellow, but I also admire versatility—for example, Donald E. Westlake wrote some hilarious comic crime stories, but under the penname of Richard Stark, he also wrote a series of extremely hardboiled stories starring a completely amoral thief, Parker. In a similar vein, Margaret Millar could also be very funny and very serious. She doesn’t have a set tone to her works— every book is a unique experience. Some authors you can sum up with a single adjective. Some, like Agatha Christie, get an adjective unfairly slapped onto them (blast that wretched term “cozy”!!!). I can’t do that with Millar—and to think she did it all while writing damn good stories!

Because setting the quality of the writing, characters, humour, etc. aside, we’re left with the plot. Mysteries are very plot-driven, and generally speaking, the better the plot the better the mystery. Margaret Millar may have used mysteries to explore abnormal psychology or exorcise her inner demons, but through it all she would tell a good story, one that would grip her readers. I like good writing, but I’d rather have 20 pages of plot than a 20-page psychological profile of a minor character. Millar balances all the aspects of her writing beautifully.

***

I definitely agree that Millar does a wonderful balancing act of all the best elements of a crime novel. It's sad that her Edgar-winner is not recognized for the daring work that it was. So many other books have used the same plot that it seems rather mundane and cliched today (trying not to give away any spoilers for those who haven't read it.) While we now have a subgenre of psych thrillers today, psychology was so new back in her era that the thought of using it in mysteries was practically unheard of.

Not only did she have all of the psychological issues in her family, but she did manage to find the time to become interested in conservation. She wrote a memoir about her home and the birds on it. Very unlike any of her novels.

I'd love to see her works back in print. I keep hoping some Kindle editions for her works. I think it's time for a new generation to discover her. Even better, I'd love to see Hollywood discover her. A great plot-driven book with good characters would be a quick seller.

***

I suspect that I know what the plot twist of the Edgar-winning A Beast in View is, if only because I know the general nature of it and the most overused twist I can think of sounds like it’ll fit the bill nicely. When it’s used well, it can be highly effective, but some movies and books simply tack it on as a shocking ending that’s supposed to make the dull trek to the finale worthwhile. I can see it working from Margaret’s pen, but I think authors in general need to give it a rest. (Then again, I might be entirely wrong. And even if I’m right, a recent movie adaptation of a book makes excellent use of the plot twist, so I’ve kind of short-circuited my chain of reasoning here.)

One of the things that impressed me most about How Like an Angel was the way Margaret portrayed the members of a religious cult. They were so individualised, so well-defined. (You know the way characters from a book tend to fade in your memory over time? There’s only a handful of books where that never happened to me. One is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. How Like an Angel is another.) The one thing that Golden Age mysteries tend to do poorly is, when a religious cult is involved, they are automatically the target for mockery. The author tends to invent a wild belief (say, the existence of a giant talking banana who ruled over Ancient Egypt) and makes it clear the cult leaders are con-men simply cheating the cult members out of their money. How Like an Angel is far more complex than that—for instance, you’re not quite certain if the cult leader holds sincere beliefs or is simply using them to control the other members. Again we see that uncertainty that I think characterizes Millar’s books— you’re never quite certain if the nurse is holding the old lady hostage in the middle of nowhere or if she’s genuinely concerned for her patient’s health. You’re never quite certain if that old lady is a homicidal maniac or not. You can never fully trust anybody, no matter who they say they are.

But I would also welcome Kindle editions of Millar’s novels. We’ve seen Craig Rice books come out this way. I would welcome it as an opportunity to get copies of veritable classics—some being a pain in the rear end to discover at the current moment—and it would open up access to Millar to a whole new level of readership that could never be accomplished via traditional methods. A movie version of a book would be a great way to do something like this. And hey, if Dan Brown can make it on the big screen, Hollywood has no excuse.

***

Well, granted it is a bit of a psychological suspense cliche today, but it's hard not to be impressed with the person who first developed the twist. She had a mind that could come up with those types of things. I don't think many writers could have pulled off a book about child abuse like she did.

I enjoyed How Like an Angel. The book could have been a series of cliches in another author's hands, but she did define each character with respect. I think you would have immediately assumed that they were out for the money if they had been written in any other way. Millar did live in a world where no one could be trusted.

Ironically, she started like many of the Golden Age authors. She was ill, reading in bed, and decided that she could do as well if not better than the author of the book she was reading. And goodness knows she did.

***

It sure makes you wonder just what book it was that she threw across the room… Was she disgustedly venting her rage on a Harry Stephen Keeler nightmare or was she scoffing at the latest Agatha Christie? Either way, that action launched her into a career that would span several decades and would see (to quote William DeAndrea): “some of the most varied and provocative mysteries in the history of the genre, with endings often unguessable until the last page”. She was certainly a great talent, and it’s somewhat unfortunate that the work of her husband ended up overshadowing her own work.

I can only hope that if a publisher out there is reading these words right now, they’ll be moved to bring Margaret’s stuff back into print. She’s well worth it, and the books would certainly go down well with today’s readers. If you (Yes, you, the reader! I know you’re reading this and you’re not doing anybody any good by pretending otherwise) have never read one of her novels before, I would unquestionably recommend doing so. Out of the books I’ve read, How Like an Angel and Fire Will Freeze seem like good starting points.

***

None of the stories I've heard ever include the title and author, which is what all of us would like to know! I believe it was merely that she thought she could do better, not that it was dreck (though humorous dreck).

It's a shame about her husband, because for most of their careers, she was the better seller. She was the first of the couple to be a MWA President; he came many years after her. I think from what I've read that it rankled a bit. It wasn't until the movies that he became better known.

Both of those books are excellent starting points, and I think both of those were in IPL editions, if my faulty memory recalls.

***

I suppose that we’d better wrap this up! Jeff, thanks a lot for joining me today for this discussion— I’ve had a great time. Hopefully we’ve managed to make some converts out there, but if not, they’ll be getting more of the Gospel according to Margaret in short time… ;)

5 comments:

  1. Well done guys - Margaret Millar is such a worthy subject. BEAST IN VIEW is a classic even if you guess the twist but it is the one title where that is likely to happen, Most of the other stand up incredibly well. The comparison with her husband's work seems inevitable (I've done it myself) but he certainly to wait for it and deserved it too, while one has to acknowledge the fact that there was a huge gap in her writing - after THE FIEND she published no fiction for 6 years, and then there was another gap of another 4 years I think. This coincided with the Ross Macdonald books becoming popular and being critically recognised for their worth but I don;t think it was linked - in the middle of that period in Margaret millar's life came the death of their daughter and that seems much fore relevant.

    Again, well done - really enjoyed the conversation.

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  2. Both Millars are eminently worth reading, it goes---I hope!---without saying. And both seem to have been forgotten to a large degree in mainstream circles. I tend to think that Millar is/was less popular than Macdonald because her work, though excellent, isn't as warm, as welcoming as his---Ken Millar was the softie in that household. Her worldview is much darker than her husband's. The Archer novels end, time and again, with the rescue of a lost soul---a young man or woman is pulled back from the brink of disaster; hope exists in Macdonald's books in a way it doesn't in Millar's. This is not a criticism. I'm not pitting one against the other, just noting a difference in temperaments, one might say. I've read and admire them both. Thanks for the discussion!

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    1. Just to chime in to say that I think Joseph is quite right in that assessment - while Ken Miller wrote a lot of books before settling (almost exclusively) on the private eye stories featuring Lew Archer, there is no denying that for many readers the perceived shape of the PI formula and of a continuing series would have been attractive. With Margaret Millar, after her earliest books ans a few of the Tom Aragon books at the end of her career, you never knew what you would get. Thsi is of course part of the appeal, but from a commercial standpoint one can understand why Rendell, probably Margaret Millar's most obvious literary heir, keeps returning to her Wexford series.

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  3. Enjoyed this. I too am disappointed that Margaret Millar is not better appreciated today. I found Rose's Last Summer, The Listening Walls, An Air That Kills to be the ultimate in page-turners. From the Nolan book, she seems a difficult personality, not necessarily likable; but it's not always the sunshine types who produce the great crime novels!

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  4. Great article. I have to admit that I'm more likely to read these in-depth pieces now that I can just send them to the Kindle and not have to read at the PC.

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