30 March 2015

The Trouble With Charlie



The Fiend
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1966

"Even by Mrs. Millar's usually high standards, The Fiend is something extraordinary," wrote Anthony Boucher in the New York Times.

It is.

Here's why: The primary character, a registered sex offender, is the most sympathetic.

This is a novel of many characters and many marriages, all of them unhappy. The Brants, Ellen and David, fight over money. Neighbour Howard Arlington fights with wife Virginia over the attention she lauds on Jessie, the Brant's daughter. Mary Martha, Jessie's friend, is being used as a pawn in a particularly acrimonious divorce. Her mother's lawyer, Ralph MacPherson, was married, but his wife died. A middle-aged widower, he attempts to stave off loneliness by keeping early nights and a dog.

Ben Gowen was married too, but his wife left him when scandal struck the family. His younger brother Charlie was convicted of something having to do with a young girl. Now, thirty-two, Charlie has done his time and is back living with Ben in the modest house they inherited from their parents.

Charlie has a job as a stock boy at a paper supply company. When not at work, he can often be found sitting in his car, parked across the street from a local playground. The vantage point provides a fairly inconspicuous view of young Jessie Brant, Ellen and David's daughter. Charlie is very concerned about Jessie. He worries that she takes too many risks on the jungle gym. Her young body is so very thin and fragile. Her flesh is too exposed. It's very upsetting.

Charlie used to spend his evenings at the public library. It was there, about a year ago, that he met a reference librarian named Louise Lang. She's thirty-two, single, and has "a tiny figure like a girl's with the merest suggestion of hips and breasts."

Charlie and Louise are a couple, thanks in large part to Ben. It was Ben who told Louise about Charlie's past problems, though how much he disclosed is unclear. What is clear that Ben sees in Louise someone on whom he can unload the burden of being his brother's keeper. He hopes for marriage. Louise dreams of matrimony, and pushes Charlie to propose.

But why would Louise want to marry a registered sex offender? Why tie yourself to such a socially awkward man? What about his increasingly frequent psychotic episodes? My first thought was that Louise was blinded by desperation, seeing only an escape from her unpleasant parents. I should've known better. There's never anything so uncomplicated or overt in a Margaret Millar novel. The Brants' marriage won't be made healthy through money. Virginia Arlington's focus on Jessie proves selfish. Divorce doesn't really explain Mary Martha's unhealthy home life. Adults use children in unhealthy ways throughout this novel. It's very upsetting.

Why does Louise want to marry Charlie? The usual reason. That the reader comes to understand speaks to Millar's talent.

Something extraordinary.

Interesting typo:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
Object: A mass market paperback, my copy follows the 1964 Knopf first edition as the first paperback. I bought it from a bookseller in Paris, Ontario. At some point in its past it ended up at The Book Nook in Batavia, Illinois. My understanding is that the store is no more.

Access: All but relegated to our university libraries – and not many at that – the only public library copies I see are in Toronto and Kitchener, Millar's hometown.


The Fiend has been through many editions from many publishers. It last appeared in 1984 as an unattractive mass market paperback published by International Polygonics. The one you want is the 1964 Knopf first edition with dust jacket by the great Arthur Hawkins. Near Fine copies can be had for about US$50. A steal.

The cheapest copies offered by online booksellers, regardless of edition, begin at US$2.50. The most expensive is listed by a crooked American bookseller who dares ask US$83.02 for the International Polygonics mass market, then tacks on a further US$50 for shipping.

As with most Millars, The Fiend has enjoyed a fair number of translations: German (Die Feindin), Danish (Barn forsvundet), Italian (Jessie è scomparsa), Spanish (El Maligno), Polish (Opiekun) and Japanese (Kokoro tsukarete). Sadly, there is no French translation.

2 comments:

  1. Great writeup of a superb novel. It's depressing that this one, like so much of Millar's work, has been allowed to fall into obscurity. Many thanks for helping to resuscitate it.

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    1. Thank you, John. It seems nearly impossible t write about Margaret Millar without using the word 'neglected'. I was thrilled last autumn to learn that Syndicate Books will be reissuing all twenty-seven titles. Sadly, I don't see that they have Canadian distribution. Hope I'm wrong.

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