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 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.
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.