03 September 2019

Where to Begin with Margaret Millar: A Top Ten

I got off to a bad start with Margaret Millar. Of the twenty-six books published during her lifetime, the first I read was Fire Will Freeze, sent me by a friend who was working for Harold Ober Associates, Millar's literary agents. This was back in the 'eighties, when her novels – some anyway – were being reissued in inelegant editions by International Polygonics. I didn't think much of Fire Will Freeze, in part because I couldn't accept its setting. The dust jacket to the 1944 first edition describes it as a "run-down Quebec chateau," but I knew better. Fire Will Freeze takes place the province's ski country, and there are no chateaus in the Laurentians.

The cover of the International Polygonics edition, depicting a scene and character not found in the novel, is no better.

Twenty-four years passed before I gave Margaret Millar a second chance. I chose a pristine first edition of An Air That Kills I'd found buried in a bin at a Toronto Goodwill. It won me over. I've been pushing Millar ever since. Can you blame me? Margaret Millar was easily one the most talented Canadian writers of the last century, and yet she's almost entirely ignored in this country.

Because I go on so, a friend has asked that I do with Millar what I had done with Grant Allen:
Starting In On Grant Allen: A Top Ten
Though I've read only thirteen Margaret Millar books – half of her total output – I'm happy to advise. What follows, in order of preference, are my ten favourite Millar novels. Titles with links point to blog posts. Titles without links are reviewed in The Dusty Bookcase, the book born of this blog. It's sold by the very finest booksellers.

An Air That Kills (1957)

Two favourite topics, infidelity and murder feature in many Millar novels, though the two aren't always linked. Both come into play here. That An Air That Kills is set in Toronto and Ontario's cottage country, both of which I know all too well, may have elevated it a notch or two in my estimation. As in so many of her novels, recognition that a crime has taken place comes quite late.
The Fiend (1964)

Anthony Boucher described The Fiend as something quite extraordinary. If anything, this is an understatement. Here is a novel about a registered sex offender, whom the author dares us to view with sympathy. He is loved by a woman who is unloved, and we – this reader anyway – come to hope that she gets her man.

Vanish in an Instant (1952)

Set in the fictional town of Arbana (read: Ann Arbor, Michigan). A wealthy, married playboy has been stabbed to death, and an equally wealthy married woman is fingered for the crime. The novel is spoiled somewhat by the intrusion of a love story, but that comes in late and passes soon enough.

Wall of Eyes (1943)

The once well-to-do, dysfunctional Heaths are at the centre of this, Margaret Millar's first Toronto murder mystery. Because it is so entangled in family, an argument may be made that it is her greatest domestic drama. The opening, in which a young woman with sight leads a seeing eye dog through city streets cannot be forgotten.
The Iron Gates (1945)

The novel that paid for Margaret and Kenneth Millar's Santa Barbara home. The Iron Gates was adapted for what was meant to be – but wasn't to be – a Bette Davis film. A psychological thriller (see cover) set in Toronto, at one point the murderer imagines a talking sugar bowl. Perfect for David Cronenberg, right?

Do Evil in Return (1950)

After The Fiend, this is Millar's boldest novel. Bad things happen, but the worst occur after protagonist Dr Charlotte Keating turns away a woman seeking an abortion. I liked this novel when I read it, and was complimentary, but was not complimentary enough. I may be making the same mistake in placing it sixth.

Wives and Lovers (1954)

This is the second of Millar's non-mysteries, which is not to say that there isn't mystery. The first concerns dentist Gordon Foster and his niece's friend. Why is he uncomfortable when her name is mentioned? It's a novel in which one expects a murder, but it never happens.

Beast in View (1955)

The short work for which Millar won the 1956 Edgar Award for Best Novel. Adapted to the small screen in a 1964 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Do not watch the 1986 version, which is Beast in View in name only. Another of the author's psychological novels, I'd like to see Cronenberg give this one a go, too.

Rose's Last Summer (1952)

The only other Millar novel adapted and broadcast on the small screen, this one, appropriately, concerns a faded film star named Rose French. Reduced to living in cramped room, surrounded by her memorabilia, she surprises her landlady by taking a housekeeping job in San Francisco. The next day, her death makes the papers.

The Listening Walls (1959)

Wilma Wyatt is at the tail end of a very bad year in which she suffered  the loss of her parents (plane crash) and husband (divorce), so the idea of a girls' getaway with old friend appealed. One of the pair ends up dead after a fall from their hotel room balcony, and then the other goes missing.

Of the other three that didn't make the cut, Experiment in Springtime is the only one I can recommend. Another non-mysteries, anyone at all interested in the depiction of mental illness in fiction will find it essential reading. The Invisible Worm, Millar's debut, also failed to make the cut, as did Fire Will Freeze – and you know how I feel about Fire Will Freeze.

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  1. I can't believe I missed this post. Interesting covers and a top ten list! What more could I want?

    I have many more to read and I just picked up three more volumes of the seven-volume Collected Millar set (at a book sale).

    1. The Collected at a book sale! Those are great finds! And, of course, you have to get the missing volumes, otherwise the picture isn't complete... I you know what I mean.

    2. You are right, Brian, I will be looking for the missing volumes. The ones I have make a picture with nothing missing, but now I am highly motivated to get the rest. It was my husband who found them for me, knowing that I like Millar so much. He is a treasure.