18 March 2010

Kitchener's Grand Dame

Fire Will Freeze
Margaret Millar
New York: International Polygonics, 1987

grand dame of the genre", says the cover, yet Margaret Millar was Canadian. A Kitchener girl, born and bred, it seems that whenever her name is mentioned today it's as the wife of Kenneth Millar – better known as Ross Macdonald. The couple met as students at the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute; their respective literary debuts were published in the same 1931 school annual. Margaret's 1945 novel The Iron Gates – set in World War II Toronto – paid for their Santa Barbara home and gave Ken the freedom to pursue a career as a novelist. I pass on this dry account as a bit of an introduction. Once a president of the Mystery Writers of America, winner of the Edgar Award, Margaret Millar has been done wrong on this side of the border. Not one of her 27 novels has ever been published in Canada.

I'd read some Ross Macdonald, was aware that his parents were Canadian, and had known that he'd grown up in Kitchener, but never had an inkling that his wife was an accomplished and acclaimed author in her own right until I received this book from a friend who was working for her New York agent.

First published in 1944, Fire Will Freeze is one of many novels Millar set in her home and native land. It begins on a "Sno-bus" being driven to a "Sno-lodge" in the midst of a Quebec "Sno-storm." The driver disappears, the passengers take shelter in an large house, and people begin to die. What seems such a standard scenario, is enlivened by Millar's use of black humour, well-realized characters and, for we Canadians, occasional references to Westmount, the Montreal Star and Ottawa Citizen.

When it first saw print, publisher Random House tried to sell Fire Will Freeze as a mystery set in a "Quebec chateau." I wonder whether this misleading description roped in many American mystery buffs? The setting does sound exotic, but what I found more interesting – here comes the spoiler – is the introduction of Pierre Jeanneret, inspired by self-described "führer canadien" Adrien Arcand, who leads a fascist organization called French Canada for Frenchmen. Le Canada français aux Français? Le Canada français aux hommes français? Millar doesn't tell us.

Some people deserve to be forgotten.

Trivia: Millar's Quebec novel has appeared in both French (Omelette canadienne) and Dutch (De sneeuw bleef niet wit). The latter – which I translate as The Snow was Not White – seems a superior title.

Object: Roger Roth's cover illustration captures something of Millar's humour, but depicts a scene not found in the novel. The design is most unpleasant and the paper is as white as the driven snow.

Access: The Kitchener Public Library has a very large collection of Millar titles, but not Fire Will Freeze. Of our public libraries, it appears that only that serving the good citizens of Toronto has a copy. Academic institutions don't fare much better; it's held by only five. Used copies range in price from one American dollar (for the International Polygonics edition) to US$125 (for the Random House first).


  1. ...and yet all I can think is "starring Shelley 'Bloody Mama' Winters circa Poseidon Adventure" or at least that is what the cover suggests to me.

    JAW fan

  2. Shelley Winters! Of course! Today Kathy Bates would be used as inspiration.

  3. I remember really enjoying Margaret Millar's 'Beast in View' when Gollancz republished it a few years ago as one of their Crime Masterworks. I must hunt more of her work down.

  4. I've always been interested in The Cannibal Heart (1949), which is said to have been inspired, in part, by the couple's rather troubled daughter. The voyeur within, I suppose.

  5. I am intrigued and will take a look at my state-wide library system to see if any of her books are available. I may be the only person not obsessed by Louise Penny and would like to read a mystery set in Canada.

    1. Of all the novels Margaret Millar set in Canada, the three I most recommend are Wall of Eyes, An Air That Kills (UK title: The Soft Talkers) and The Iron Gates.

      I'll be interested in knowing what you think!