Monday, February 04, 2013

Paradise Lost

Charlie Gowen isn’t a monster by instinct. He’s a sensitive and caring person. He doesn’t want to hurt people. And he loves children. He doesn’t want to hurt them. He wants to protect them from harm. Take Jessie, for instance. She’s taken a few nasty spills on the playground and her hands are all bruised up. Charlie sees this, and he follows Jessie and her friend Mary Martha home, intending to warn Jessie’s parents to take good care of her.

Only he doesn’t follow the girls to Jessie’s house, he follows them to Mary Martha’s. And he doesn’t warn anyone, he keeps the knowledge of the address to himself. You see, Charlie isn’t entirely normal. I mean, the doctors said it was okay for him to go out into the world, but he has been warned to keep away from children. His brother Ben is supposed to take care of him, make sure nothing else happens like it did that one time. You see, Charlie is a pedophile.

This is the disturbing premise of Margaret Millar’s novel The Fiend. Millar was one of the all-time great mystery authors, and The Fiend sounds precisely like the kind of book I hate reading. But no, The Fiend is not that kind of book. If you are worried that you will have to wade through a graphic child-rape-torture scene, you can set your mind at ease. Nothing like that ever takes place onstage.

Slowly, the suspense builds, but this is one of the most unusual crime novels I’ve ever come across. There’s only one crime that occurs near the end of the novel, and that’s the loss of a child’s innocence. It’s hard to describe why this counts as a mystery novel, but it should be clear to anyone who has read the book why this is the case.

What Millar does is she takes the premise of a stalker following a child around, and uses the situation to critique American society. When we first take a walk in Jessie Brant’s neighbourhood, it seems like a paradise. She’s best friends with Mary Martha, she’s got terrific parents, her next-door neighbours dote on her. But slowly, cracks begin to appear in this façade. Mary Martha’s mother Kate, for instance, is a paranoiac divorcée. She is convinced that her ex-husband Sheridan is on a personal mission to take Mary Martha away from her, and she blames anything that goes wrong on Sheridan. If she stubbed her toe and Sheridan was hundreds of miles away, she would still find a way to blame him. She compulsively locks all the doors and windows to her home and is overprotective of Martha. “She no longer thought of doors as things to open; doors were to close, to keep people out.” So when Charlie begins hanging around the home in his car, Kate is convinced that Sheridan is stalking her and Mary Martha!

What about Jessie’s next-door-neighbours? “Aunt Virginia” dotes on her and is constantly buying her these small presents and spending her time around her, pretty much obsessing over her. Meanwhile, Virginia’s husband, “Uncle Howard”, spends most of his time travelling as part of his job, and is furious at Virginia’s wastefulness and her attempts to “buy” the child with gifts of all sorts. They explode into vicious arguments, including one right in front of Jessie.

And slowly, slowly, Millar ratchets up the tensions until they reach the boiling point. Then, all the anger and the pent-up violence explode, and there is only one casualty: a child’s innocence. In this respect, this is one of the most tragic novels I’ve ever read.

I know this doesn’t sound like my usual fare, but believe me when I say The Fiend is very good, even for someone who ordinarily doesn’t like this kind of crime novel. The reason I tend to avoid these books is because they tend to be too long for their own sake, especially more modern books which can be absolutely gargantuan. But The Fiend is mercifully short – my edition is only 250 pages, and yet Millar can create a staggering amount of complexity around her characters. The mistrust, the resentment, the anger… it’s all held back until the finale, when the façade crumbles completely and we see these people for who they really are. And yet all this is done without rambling and without wasting a word. It’s masterfully done.

Due to its intensely disturbing nature, I wouldn’t recommend The Fiend as a starting point for Margaret Millar, but if you are an established fan I’d unhesitatingly recommend it. It’s a tragic book with complex characters and a disturbing central premise, and that’s precisely what makes it so good. It also avoids the kind of graphic scenes that would have made it an unpleasant read. If you’re interested, give it a go. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

2 comments:

  1. Great review Patrick of a challenging book, one that uses the 'Peyton Place' and mystery tropes as a way into a very dofficult subject - one could argue this was her last great book (she didn't publish another novel for 6 years and then another 6 years passed before the next).

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  2. Millar understood--or maybe she was just responding to the prevalent market demand back then--that the best suspense is economically told. Compare a 1970s Rendell with one from the last decade if you don't believe me.

    I thought her 1976 novel Ask for Me Tomorrow was great, the ones after that there does seem to be a noticeable dip. At that point she was losing her eyesight and dealing with her husband's rapid deterioration from Alzheimer's, which couldn't have helped.

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