02 September 2014

Margaret Millar's Great Toronto Murder Mystery

The Iron Gates
Margaret Millar
New York: Dell, 1960

Boris Karloff thought this was a great mystery and so do I. Does that convince? What if I add Anthony Boucher and Louis Untermeyer?

Margaret Millar's sixth mystery, The Iron Gates was the one that really made her. With its sales, she bought a house in Santa Barbara, sharing it with husband Kenneth, far from the cold of Canadian winters past.

The novel begins at the season's first snowfall, in the expansive Toronto home of gynaecologist Andrew Morrow, wife Lucille, daughter Polly, son Martin, and Edith, the doctor's spinster sister. Snow aside, the day promises to be memorable as Polly's fiancé, Lt Giles Frome, will be meeting the Morrow family for the first time. What does he encounter? Edith, for one, who insists on making a speech as he walks in the door:
She blushed and gave Giles an embarrassed and apologetic smile. "I know how sentimental that sounds but I think it's true, we are a happy family. Of course we have our lapses. Polly is invariably rude and Martin's high spirits are a trial…"
     "And Edith gets maudlin," Polly said.
     "Oh, I do not," Edith said. "And Andrew can never find anything and then gets cross, don't you, Andrew?"
     "I may become justifiably irritated," Andrew said, "but never cross."
     "As for Lucille…"
Yes, what about Lucille? Stepmother to Polly and Martin, they've never really warmed to her. Lucille had once been a neighbour and friend of their mother. In fact, the first Mrs Morrow was returning from a visit with Lucille when she was killed by an axe murderer. Her bloodied body was found the next day in High Park. The scene of the unsolved crime is laid-out in what is perhaps the least helpful of all Dell mapbacks:

Giles Frome never has the opportunity to develop his own feelings about Lucille because the lady vanishes the very next day. Late that afternoon, a shabby little man appears at the front door with a small package for Lucille. Annie, the most eager of the Morrow help, carries it up to her mistress's room. Moments later, there's a scream. Annie races back. From the other side of the locked door Lucille orders her away. Annie does as she's told, but returns a few minutes later to find her mistress gone.

Enter Inspector Bascombe, Sergeant D'Arcy and, finally, Inspector Sands, all of the Toronto Police.  It's the experienced Sands, veteran of Millar's Wall of Eyes, who tracks the missing woman to the Lakeview Hotel. Now quite mad, Lucille is whisked off to an asylum, the ambulance passing the slumped figure of the shabby little man, dead in the alley of a morphine overdose.

In 1945, the year The Iron Gates was first published, Warner Brothers bought the rights and hired Millar to work on the screenplay. The role of Lucille was offered to Bette Davis, who turned it down for reasons that would spoil in the sharing. Barbara Stanwyck committed, but nothing came of it. This may be just as well. To quote the first edition dust jacket, The Iron Gates is a "psychological thriller". Much of what makes the novel so very good has to do with the depiction of Lucille's less than lucid thoughts. We've all seen just how difficult it is to adapt these sorts of things to the screen. That said, I think, I couldn't help but think of David Cronenberg, particularly his brilliant adaptation of Patrick McGrath's Spider, when reading passages like this:
The fat pink sugar bowl was passed. Lucille would not touch it, its flesh was too pink, too perfect. Not real flesh at all, she thought, but she knew it was because she could see it breathing.
     Miss Eustace's spoon clanged against the grans of sugar. "One or two?"
     "There. Stir it up before you drink it. No, dear, stir it up first."
     She picked up her spoon, dreading the feel of it. Everything was alive, everything hurt. She was hurting the spoon, and though it looked stupid and inert it was hurting her in return, digging into her fingers.
     "Not so hard, Mrs. Morrow"
     Round the cup the spoon dashed in fury and pain, stirring up the hot muddy waves and all the little alive things. She swallowed them, in triumph because she had won, and in despair, because, swallowed and out of sight, they would take vengeance on her.
     Everything was alive. The floor that hurt your shoes that hurt your feet. The napkin that touched your dress that pressed against your thighs. Pain everywhere.
     No privacy. You could never be alone. You always had to touch things and have them touch you. 
Cronenberg is a Toronto boy, and this is very much a Toronto novel. You don't have to be very familiar with the city to recognize the department store in which Polly and her fiancé shop as Eaton's. The Arcadian Court, the Savarin Tavern and the White Spot (site of the city's first gangland murder) all receive mention. Giles takes out a room at the ill-famed Ford Hotel.

The Iron Gates is a great mystery. I don't mean to suggest that it isn't flawed; the mystery surrounding the first Mrs Morrow's murder unravels in an unlikely manner.

That's it.

The Iron Gates is a Great Mystery. Remember, Boris Karloff thought so.

He had his own comic book, you know.

Trivia: The second novel I've read in three months to feature a Toronto gynaecologist.

Object: A squat, 222-page mass market paperback. My copy, the second Dell edition, is blessed with a cover that is superior to the first:

It follows The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Red House Mystery as #26 in the Dell Great Mystery Library.

Access: A rare find in academic libraries. Public library patrons who live outside Toronto are entirely out of luck.

Though long out of print – the last was a 1999 Thorndike large print edition – there are plenty of used copies out there. The 1945 Random House first in Near Fine condition can be had for as little as US$60. Those on modest budgets may want to consider one the numerous mass market editions from Dell (1948 & 1960), Penguin (as Taste of Fears, 1962 & 1984), Avon (1974) and International Polygonics (1987).

Toronto publishers take note: There has never been a Canadian edition.

The novel has enjoyed numerous translations: French (Un doigt de folie), Dutch (De poort van de angst), German (Sendbote des Teufels, a/k/a Das eiserne Tor), Italian (Sapore di paura), Spanish (Las puertas de hierro), Catalan (Amb la por al cos), Japanese (鉄の門), Estonian (Raudvärav) and Finnish (Rautaportti).

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  1. I liked THE IRON GATES very much too.

    1. Brilliant, isn't it, Patti. I think of the opening every time I walk in High Park.

  2. This is a must read! I can't understand why someone hasn't reissued all of Millar yet; she is so brilliant, and vintage is so hot right now. As you know, I have a bias toward her genius, anyhow.

    1. One of the best Canadian writers of her generation, I say. No one wrote dialogue better than she. As for those reissues, I'm working on it.

  3. One of her very creepy books, I'd say. I read it for the first time last year just before a re-read of A STRANGER IN MY GRAVE. Quite a sadistically cruel and nasty villain in this book. Outdoes the wicked psychological manipulation of the husband in Hamilton's Angel Street.

    1. The creep factor is right up there with Beast in View, I think. Together they are easily the most disturbing Millars I've read to date.

      On a side note, I'm curious about Millars earliest novels: The Invisible Worm, The Weak-Eyed Bat and The Devil Loves Me. Have you read any of these, John? I understand the first two are quite rare.

    2. I've never seen copies of her first two books. Not even in a library out here. Finding one in a used bookstore would be like coming across buried pirate's treasure.

      You should read Deb Pfeifer's review of THE INVISIBLE WORM . Only time I've seen anyone review that book.

      The Devil Loves Me is much easier to find having been reprinted multiple times in hardcover and in paperback. I picked up a cheap reprint years ago. When I tried to read it, it didn't excite me as much as her books from the 50s. It was like early Gladys Mitchell who was spoofing the detective novel genre in her first books. I got too much wry humor and not much of her insightful characterization. It was very different from the kind of book that has come to define her.

  4. Well, you have convinced me with the images of the book covers. I have read books by Margaret Millar years ago and she was a bit too creepy for me, but I have been planning to read more of her books, and the fact that she is from Canada was a motivating factor.

    You also provided with a fact I did not know. I live in Santa Barbara, so of course I know she lived here with Kenneth Millar, but I did not know that this book bought the house they lived in.

    1. I think you'll find this one of her most disturbing novels, Tracy. May I suggest An Air That Kills (a/k/a The Soft Talkers)? It's my favourite, though I still haven't tackled so much as half of her bibliography.

    2. Thanks for the recommendation, Brian. I will definitely follow up on that. Also, I just realized that I have Wall of Eyes so I can read that one first. But I have to have a copy of that Mapback edition of The Iron Gates if I can afford it; I love those editions.

    3. Wall of Eyes is every bit as good as The Iron Gates, Tracy. It's opening intrigues… I'll say no more. Gotta love those mapbacks. You'll find that the one for Wall of Eyes is much more helpful.

  5. The Iron Gates is not an easy book to find in The Netherlands despite the translation 'De Poort van de Angst". I could shell out 25 euro's and get it via UK or I could talke your advice and start with Soft Talkers ( found it in France) for 29 euro cents! Now that's an offer I cannot refuse! Cannot wait to read the book...!

    1. I expect The Iron Gates is more common as Taste of Fears in the European used book market.

      The Soft Talkers for 29¢? Well done! I've never seen a copy myself.