06 March 2012

The Telephone Always Rings

Beast in View
Margaret Millar
New York: Bantam, 1956

Margaret Millar's big book, this was put aside for years after I read a review that gave away far too much of the plot. The same mistake will not be made here.

As with most Millars, things begin quietly. The protagonist, Helen Clarvoe, is not at all foreign to her fiction. Lonely and insecure she resides – but does not truly live – in a downtown hotel suite. Though just thirty, Helen meets the very definition of spinster. She has no friends or interests, dresses dowdy and is a bit of a prude. The suite might seem like an extravagance, but it only enables her to live as a shut-in; Helen is otherwise remarkably frugal.

Still, hotel suites don't come cheap. Miss Clarvoe is able to afford hers through an inheritance she's received from her late father. Estranged from her mother and sole sibling Douglas, Helen's only steady contact with the outside world comes in the form of Paul Blackshear, who handles her investments. It's to this man that Helen turns when things begin to go awry.

Much is made of Millar as someone who could pen psychological mysteries with a good twist, but I admire more her abilities to draw characters. In Beast in View the reader meets a good number of fascinating figures: Helen, her mother, Douglas, Blackshear, Jane the switchboard operator, school chum Eveleyn, charm school headmistress Lydia Hudson, photographer Jack Terola and painter Harley Moore, are just half of the cast. It says much that all are real, so fully fleshed, living in a novel that ends before hitting the bottom of page 120.

True, the type in this Bantam edition is small, but it's not at all dense. I've written before of my admiration for Millar's dialogue; here it is real and revealing to the point in which one feels that it would only be polite to close the book and leave the room. I can think of no better example than the six pages of dialogue in which Douglas reveals to his mother that he is gay.

This is the closest I'm going to come in spoiling the book.

It's tempting to slam Bantam for its author bio, which gives equal space to husband Ross Macdonald. However, after reading Millar on Beast in View, I'm willing to cut the publisher some slack.

In the Afterword to the 1993 International Polygionics edition, she writes that she abandoned the novel – "half-written" –  after happening upon a 1954 "television play" with a plot that was, in her words, "the same as the one I was writing."

The television play in question, Gore Vidal's Dark Possession, starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, is about... ah, but that would be spoiling things.

Millar tells us that her husband "stepped in as he often had in the past", presenting an idea that "altered the whole book". She reveals the idea, but I won't repeat it – again, that would be spoiling things.

Object: My copy, the first paperback edition, is as common as the first edition is scarce. What it has going for it is that cover. Equal parts sexy and scary, it beats all others. Anyone considering this edition would be wise to ignore the publisher's pitch page, which not only misleads, but tells far too much of what is to come. I present it here with spoilers blacked out:

Access: Reissued last autumn under the Orion imprint, British readers should have little trouble tracking down a copy. Canadians, meanwhile, are forced to look to used bookstores.

I've never encountered the 1955 Random House first edition, nor could I find an image. It's interesting to note that right now one – just one – copy is listed for sale online. It is signed not by Mrs Millar, but by Dorothy B. Hughes. The first British edition, published by Gollancz in 1955, seems to be just about as uncommon; two jacketless ex-library copies are listed, but nothing else. Those who don't care about such things will be pleased to learn that dozens of decent copies published by Bantam, Penguin, Avon, Orion, Corgi, Mystery Guild, International Polygonics, John Curley, Carroll & Graf and Hodder & Stoughton going for under five dollars.

Like most Margaret Millar novels, Beast in View has been translated numerous times. The first French edition, Mortellement vôtre (Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1957), is the most attractive, even if the cover was recycled from Jay Barbette's Death's Long Shadow. German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Japanese and Chinese also figure in the mix.

Most foreign-language titles have something to do with the idea of a beast –  狙った獣 (Aimed at the Beast), La bestia se acerca (The Beast is Coming). The best, 眼中的獵物 (The Eyes of the Prey), turns everything on its head. The worst, but most successful in terms of sales, is the German: Liebe Mutter, es geht mir gut... (Dear Mother, I Am Fine…).

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  1. Such a great book. Nicely adapted for TV in the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" series w/ Joan Hackett as Helen, another troubled soul, in an affecting and nuanced performance that she did so well. Wish I could oblige with a photo of the very scarce 1st edition DJ, but this is the only book of Millar's I do not own. Sad but true.

  2. Agreed. I'm only sorry that the review from all those years ago put me off for so long. I've seen the Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation (the subject of the next post) and the one that was done when AHP was revived in the 'eighties. I very much liked the first. The second? Um...

  3. This may be my favorite Millar although there are a lot of contenders.

  4. I'm with Patti: A BEAST IN VIEW may be Millar's best book.

  5. Although I've read A BEAST IN VIEW more than once, I'm so glad you didn't give away too much of the plot. It really is a book where the reader should know as little as possible about the story before reading it.

  6. Indeed, a wonderful book. I've become a bit of a fan of the first Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation. Fun to watch - though it will spoil the book. James Bridges, the man behind the teleplay, was very clever. Shame to think that there has not been a single feature film made from Millar's novels.