20 April 2015

Discovered Vile

The Three Roads
Kenneth Millar
New York: Dell, [n.d.]

The Three Roads is a psychological thriller of the type in which Margaret Millar excelled. Here husband Kenneth, writing under his true name for the last time, falls a bit flat. But only in comparison.

This story from Millar, mari, concerns Second World War veteran Bret Taylor, a naval officer made amnesiac by the loss of his ship and his wife. Now hospitalized, he's visited by Hollywood screenwriter Paula West. It was only a couple of years ago that determined Paula, a divorcée, saw a second husband in Bret. They'd met at a vacation resort and had shared nineteen nice enough days together. No bed, true, but twenty-something navy man Bret was a virgin.

Months passed before they were able to meet again. When they did, Bret drank too much, felt pressured to perform and propose, and fled to Los Angeles. Forty-eight hours later – or was it seventy-two? – he found himself married to a nineteen-year-old barfly.

"Fast moving" pitches Dell.

Sure, but not 'til the second half.

The earliest chapters of The Three Roads have Bret lagging behind, struggling to recall what the reader already knows. I spoil little in disclosing that his young wife was victim in the "murder in sunny California" referred to on the back cover.

Bret saw her naked dead body beautiful and passed out.

See front cover.

Credit goes to psychoanalyst Theodor Klifter for kicking this novel into gear. He hands over newspaper accounts of the murder, Bret springs to his feet, "irises shining grayly like small spinning wheels", and we're off!

Nose to ground and grindstone Bret starts sniffing out the killer of the wife he can't remember. First stop is the Golden Sunset Café, a dive at which she spent her penultimate hours. But Bret's no detective. He ties one on, gets into a fight and ends up in the bed of some guy named Larry Miles. I made the made too much of this; Larry's interest in Bret isn't at all sexual:
The way things were going he and Taylor might end up as bosom pals. And that would be a belly laugh of the first water. He was a card, all right, a real wag out of the top drawer with bells on.
Or am I wrong?

Look, I'm no psychologist, nor am I a psychoanalyst. That said, I recognize The Three Roads as very much a post-war work – not because of the conflict, but for its focus on psychopathy. It's no accident that the Dalíesque cover of Knopf's 1948 first edition brings to mind Hitchcock's Spellbound. Herr Doktor Klifter is one of two – two – psychoanalysts who chew up page after page with theories as to the source of Bret's psychosis, Interesting stuff, I guess, but it was much more fun to read about Bret's bar fight.

It seemed more real, too.

To Margaret [Millar]
For now am I discovered vile, and of the vile. O ye three roads, and thou concealed dell, and oaken copse, and narrow outlet of three ways, which drank my own blood
– Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus
Trivia: In 1980, the novel was made into what looks to be a particularly bad Canadian film known variously as Deadly Companion, Double Negative, Killer aus den Dunkel, Kauhun pierre and Imagem Dupla.

The subject of a future post.

Object: A 222-page Dell mapback with cover illustration by Bob Stanley. I purchased my copy for $7.50 this past January at London's Attic Books, a mere three kilometres down three roads from the University of Western Ontario, Millar's alma mater.

Access: Published in 1948 by Knopf, for a fourth novel from a major house the first edition isn't cheap. We're well over US$300 before we find a copy in decent dust jacket.

The Knopf and Dell editions are the only to have been published under Millar's real name; the others – Cassell, Bantam, Corgi, Warner, Virgin, Allison & Busby and Vintage/Black Lizard – employ his more famous nom de plume. That last, the Vintage/Black Lizard edition, is in print at US$15.95/C$17.95.

While Americans are well-served, we Canadians starve. The only library copies I see are held by the Kitchener Public Library, the Toronto Public Library, the University of Toronto and the University of Calgary.

The University of Western Ontario does not have a copy.

As with most Millar/Macdonalds, translations abound: French (La boite de Pandora), Dutch (Drie wegen), German (Der Mörder im Spiegel), Italian (L'assassino di mia moglie), Portuguese (Vitória amarga), Polish (Troista droga), Czech (Rozcestí), Finnish (Valheen pitkät jäljet), Russian (Tri dorogi) and Japanese (三つの道).

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  1. Terrific! I am hot on the trail of The Three Road thanks to your superb posting. I hope my library comes through for me, but I have my doubts; I might have to resort to Amazon.

    BTW, my new crime fiction blog -- Crimes in the Library -- debuted today, and I hope you will visit the premiere posting and offer your answers to my questions. The door is always open, the chairs are comfortable, and the coffee is hot in the Library. Drop in anytime!

    1. Hey, if coffee is on offer you can consider me in.

  2. What lovely paperback covers. This sounds interesting but I think I will wait a while to actually read it. Might try to find a copy sooner though.

    1. I like all three covers, Tracy, mainly because they either capture an event described in the book (Dell), or depict a scene that could have happened (Bantam and Combinatie). The film on the other hand…