Margaret Millar was a major writer of mystery and suspense for four decades, yet practically none of her books are in print today. Specialising in stories of abnormal or aberrant psychology, her books are notable for their acute portraits of people in distress (especially women), often concluding with marvellous twist endings sprung on the unsuspecting reader often in the book’s final words. She was at the height of her success in the 40s and 50s but this began to wane as her output began to diminish – having previously produced at least one book a year from her debut in 1941, between 1964 and 1976 she would complete only three novels. The Fiend is the first of these and it truly stretches the boundaries of the suspense genre into some very murky waters.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” - Tolstoy
One of the protagonists of this engrossing novel, and the most obviously challenging for any reader, is Charlie Gowen, a 32-year-old man who identifies so closely with young children that his impulse to protect them may in the past have descended, possibly, into something deeply disturbing . So much so that his older brother Ben keeps almost a permanent watch on his movements. Although we are never quite sure what it is he has done, he was released several years before from an institution after a court case which saw him listed as a sex offender with a requirement therefore that he stay away from places where young people congregate. As the novel opens, he is in his car across the street from the school playground, watching Jessie and her friend Mary Martha. Jessie is forever getting hurt on the jungle jim in the playground and this day she is sent home in the company of Martha to get her blisters looked at. Charlie is concerned about them and follows them home on to Jacaranda Street. The rest of the novel will split its focus between three connected families on the street and the Gowen brothers and Charlie’s librarian girlfriend Louse, who is so desperate to get away from her own family situation that she is happy to spend the rest of her life helping Charlie with his problems.
… they were people caught like animals in a death grip. Neither was strong enough to win and neither would let go.
But just who is the ‘Fiend’ of the title? Mary Martha’s mother Kate is on the verge of nervous collapse, locked in a debilitating struggle for money and custody for the child with her estranged husband, whom she blames for everything, even when she spots Charlie’s car parked suspiciously outside their house. This has led her to a highly paranoid existence, cutting herself off from practically all society except for Mac, the family lawyer, who is desperate to bring a little sanity to the family situation, especailly for the daughter’s sake. Jessie’s mother and father live not very far away, next door to the wealthy Arlingtons, Howard and Virginia. A childless couple, their marriage has gone stale and Virginia has inserted herself into her neighbours’ life to their increasing alarm, insisting on buying Jessie expensive gifts. Through several extended vignettes, Millar paints in with great expertise the small details that define the lives of these variously disaffected characters, focusing on the impact that this has on the two 9-year-old girls. Things are brought to a head when a series of apparent coincidences lead to Charlie, now engaged to Louise (to both his brother’s relief and concern), becoming ever more agitated about Jessie and Mary Martha’s well-being; the tangled lives of their families lead him to start writing anonymous letters to Kate and the police about the girls. When one of the girls goes missing one night, after a painful argument between Howard and Virginia at their neighbour’s barbeque, Mac and Inspector Gallantyne’s investigation quickly unearths Charlie’s apparent involvement given his history and recent sightings in the vicinity – but is he really guilty, and can Louise’s determination to understand him finally lead to the truth?
Probably the book’s best-known review, and the one emblazoned on many a paperback reprint, was by Anthony Boucher in the New York Times, where he said:
“Even by her unusually high standards it is something extraordinary. It may well be the finest example to date of the fusion of the novel of character and the puzzle of suspense. A superb thriller. From any point of view it is a master-work.”
Millar’s control of language is superb, as is her use of imagery which constantly refers to nature to provide a sort of Darwinian sense of determinacy to the proceedings as various people revert to behaviour that can be characterised as animalistic or atavistic as domestic lives became completely destabilised by the child’s disappearance, making the adults face up to how they have in their own way bargained for her affections to fill a void in the lives. As with the best of Millar, several twists are introduced in the final few pages to reveal a complex additional layer of meaning, though one of the surprises of this particular novel is the optimistic outlook at its conclusion. Though most of the characters go through the wringer in the story, most of them are still left with a glimmer of hope at the end that things may in fact get better. This is a superb work, a subtle look at the neuroses of people in the California suburbs of the early 1960s that is still impressive today.
Why has Millar work been so neglected of late? It is possible that within the crime and mystery genre she may have been limited or disadvantaged by the fact that she never really developed a series character in her books, unlike her husband Kenneth Millar who is mostly celebrated for the exceptional series of Lew Archer private detective novels he published as Ross Macdonald. Her first three novels feature psychologist Doctor Paul Prye and private investigator Tom Aragon featured in some of her last few novels but hers are usually stand-alone works which may have made them seem less marketable. And yet there must be more to it than that as the quality of her writing and plotting clearly speaks for itself. By the early 1940s she was already established as a notable mystery writer and he breakthrough novel, the Edgar-winning Beast in View (1955), remains a groundbreaking dip into the world of abnormal psychology with a last-minute twist that most readers won’t see coming even though it has been copied by several others since then. I would be very surprised if Dennis Lehane hadn’t read The Fiend before writing his magnum opus, Mystic River (2001), for instance, as it largely follows the same pattern – of course, one could argue that depictions of people who have a peculiar relationship to childhood and children due to a foreshortening of their emotional and psychological development can stretch back at least as far as ‘Hands’, that remarkable 1916 story by Sherwood Anderson later included in Winesburg, Ohio (1919), but this takes nothing away from her singular achievement in the crime genre.
If the impact of her works had perhaps been reduced for readers encountering it today, it is also true that as her husband’s work in the 1960s took off finally and received the critical attention it deserved, she produced less and less, due also perhaps to the sudden death of their daughter in 1970 following a short and frequently traumatic life. When her husband stopped writing after 1976, due to what would eventually be diagnosed as dementia, she once again started publishing so it is perhaps not unreasonable to see if there is a slight pattern there – certainly, reading her books encourages you as a reader to look for telling psychological clues but most of us aren’t as sharp as Millar. So perhaps her books lost momentum in the marketplace and she never really recovered, her place taken by other talented writers such as PD James, Ruth Rendell and even Patricia Highsmith. In discussing the merits of Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder recently, fellow blogger Patrick and I both found that one of the writers that emerged most favourably was Millar - it remains true that she produced a half-dozen or so real classic in the 50s and 60, but all are well worth reading – here is a complete list including The People Next Door (2004), a posthumous collection of her short stories published by Crippen & Landru that includes excellent contextual information by Tom Nolan, author of Kenneth Millar’s biography:
- The Invisible Worm (1941)
- The Weak-Eyed Bat (1942)
- WThe Devil Loves Me (1942)
- Wall of Eyes (1943)
- Fire Will Freeze (1944)
- The Iron Gates [Taste of Fears] (1945)
- Experiment in Springtime (1947)
- It’s All in the Family (1948)
- The Cannibal Heart (1949)
- Do Evil in Return (1950)
- Rose’s Last Summer (1952)
- Vanish in an Instant (1952)
- Wives and Lovers (1954)
- Beast in View (1955)
- An Air That Kills [The Soft Talkers] (1957)
- The Listening Walls (1959)
- A Stranger in My Grave (1960)
- How Like an Angel (1962)
- The Fiend (1964)
- The Birds and the Beasts Were There (1968) (memoir)
- Beyond This Point Are Monsters (1970)
- Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976)
- The Murder of Miranda (1979)
- Mermaid (1982)
- Banshee (1983)
- Spider Webs (1986)
- The Couple Next Door: Collected Short Mysteries (2004)
Margaret Millar deserves to be better known and I can do nothing better than encourage readers to seek out second-hand copies of her novels. If you like Ruth Rendell (or especially her books as Barbara Vine), you’ll love Millar.