31 May 2012

Damaged, Dysfunctional and Decadent Toronto

Wall of Eyes
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1946

Wall of Eyes is one of Margaret Millar's Canadian novels, by which I mean that it's one of a handful she set in her home and native land. It centres on Toronto's Heath family, a clan that cover copy describes as "decadent" – the word that might first come to mind today is "dysfunctional".

Matriarch Isabel has been dead for some eighteen months, though her influence lingers. Amongst those she's left behind is a cowed, uxorious husband who spends his days holed-up in a third-storey bedroom. Her eldest children, Alice (an aspiring spinster) and John (a heavy-set half-wit with a thing for nightclub singers, dancers and waitresses) are slipping into middle age, yet still haven't left the nest.

Isabel willed the house and every cent of her money to the youngest, Kelsey, a cold and clever girl who is in every way her mother's daughter. Two years earlier, in Isabel's final months, Kelsey lost her sight as the result of a car accident. John was riding in a rumble seat with a cheap date who died at the scene. Kelsey's fiancé, Philip, a middling pianist, survived to play another day.

Philip lives at the Heath residence, but don't get the wrong idea; Kelsey hates her fiancé. As her mother did her father, she's turned her betrothed into an emotional cripple. Oh, every once in awhile Phillip will say he's had enough, but Kelsey knows he's too feeble to ever leave.

Wall of Eyes was Millar's fourth novel and first great commercial success. It's typical of her work: domestic drama and dialogue captivate; psychology, which she studied at the University of Toronto, comes into play. More than one-third of the novel passes before we encounter a body; in this case, poor Kelsey with a wide, deep gash to her breast. "A powerful hand had held the knife, a hand driven by hate or rage."

Kelsey's death brings Detective-Inspector Sands to the Heath residence. A loner, with "no wife or child or friend", he is one of Millar's greatest characters. Sands reappears in what might be her finest novel, The Iron Gates (1945), and the short story "The Couple Next Door" (1954). With him comes glimpses of Toronto's very tame wartime nightclubs, venues that are otherwise almost absent in Canadian literature.

Well... they were tame.

It's always a challenge to write about Margaret Millar – there will be twists and one hates to spoil. So, I'll leave off with a bold pronouncement: This woman, who has never been published in Canada, ranks amongst the very finest Canadian novelists of her generation.

Those familiar with her work know that I'm merely stating the obvious.

Object and Access: The first edition, published by Random House in 1943, is not at all common; five copies are currently listed online, but only one has the dust jacket. At US$95, it is a bargain. Beware of second and third printings.

Copies of the most recent reissue, International Polygonics' 1986 edition, can be had for a buck – others from Lancer and Avon go for not much more. For my money, the Dell edition, with cover by Gerald Gregg, is nicest. Very Good and better copies begin at two dollars and go all the way up to thirty.

Despite numerous mass market reissues, our public libraries almost all fail – our universities don't do much better.

Wall of Eyes has been translated, but less than the typical Millar title. Completists will be on the hunt for the Spanish (Muro de ojos, 1986), French (Des yeux plein la tote, 1990), German (Blinde Augen sehen mehr, 1990) and Japanese (眼の壁, 1998) editions.

Margaret Millar is the featured author this week at blogger Patti Abbott's "Friday's Forgotten Books". Lot's of good stuff by regular contributors, including review of The Iron Gates by Patti herself.


  1. I nearly reviewed this one! Brilliant opening to this one. Love those first two paragraphs. I mentioned the second Sands novel THE IRON GATES in passing in my review of my favorite Millar book: A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE.

    IRON GATES has a lot of great things going for it, especially the scenes in the mental institution, but the mystery aspect was a dead giveaway to me and lessens it as one of her best books. On the other hand I think STRANGER is a beauty of a novel - structurally, thematically, loads of action, some brilliant and powerful scenes. It's very modern. Timeless even. And the way she delivers her final stunning revelation is priceless.

    1. The opening is indeed brilliant... and intriguing. I suppose I came to The Iron Gates as someone who, until recently, didn't read many mysteries, so that aspect was perhaps less important to me. The writing is so good and, as you say, the scenes in the mental institution are particularly strong.

      That said, I've not yet read A Stranger in My Grave . You've certainly sold me! Now, if I can only find a copy.

  2. Love the cover on that DELL Mapback!

    1. I've never seen a Gerald Gregg cover I didn't like - a lot. Some good soul has posted a collection of his Dell work here. Well worth a visit.

  3. Really informative Brian, thanks - can it be true that she has never been published in Canada? How disappointing. I tend to prefer her books without a fixed series character, especially that batch from BEAST IN VIEW to THE FIEND.

    1. Thanks for the kind word, Sergio. I've yet to find any evidence that a Canadian publisher has ever picked up a Millar title. As if to add insult to injury, I don't see that the Stark House (An Air that Kills/Do Evil in Return) and Phoenix (Beast in View) reissues of the past few years have Canadian distribution. It's all pretty shameful.

      Wanted to add - hence the deleted comment below - that Sands doesn't exactly dominate the novel. In fact, it isn't until page 94 (of 240) that he makes his first appearance. Patti put it best in her review of The Iron Gates: "It’s not about the detective."

      End of sales pitch.

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